Sunday, August 8, 2010

"Messengers of the Past"

The totem pole display area at Brockton Point in Stanley Park (Vancouver, BC) is "the most visited tourist attraction in all of British Columbia," according to one of the Park's web pages.

This (right) is one of the three gateways carved by Coast Salish artist Susan Point. The three red cedar portals represent the traditional slant-roof style of Coast Salish architecture with carved welcome figures in the doorways.

Several of the original "messengers of the past" are 20 generations old (and now in museums), having been carved as early as the late 1880s, but time plus the elements have taken their toll over the ensuing decades.

Shown here are four of the total number of nine poles; most of the new ones are reproductions that have been commissioned or loaned to the park between 1986 and 1992.

Entitled Kakaso'las, this pole was created in 1955 by Kwakwaka'wakw* carver Ellen Neel and her uncle Mungo Martin, among the first artists to achieve wide recognition for their totem poles commissioned by museums, cities, and art collectors. Neel was the first woman to become a Northwest Coast carver.

In Kwakwaka'wakw ceremonies, carved staffs called talking sticks are held by people making important speeches on behalf of the chief. This pole (right) represents the talking stick and characters in an Owikeno story belonging to Chief Wakas. Shown on this portion of the pole is a thunderbird and a killer whale.

An older version of Chief Skodans Mortuary Pole (right, in photo on the right) was raised in the Haida village of Skidegate about 1870. It honors the Raven Chief of Skedans and depicts the chief's hereditary crests.

From top to bottom, the carvings depict a Moon (a chief's crest), a mountain goat, a grizzly bear, and a whale.

The rectangular board at the top of the original pole covered a cavity that held the chief's remains. Haida artist Bill Reid with assistant Werner True carved this new pole in 1964. Don Yeomans recarved the top moon face in 1998.

Carved house posts are used in traditional First Nation cedar houses to support the huge roof beams. This pole is a replica of a house post carved by Kwakwaka'wakw artist Charlie James (step-father of Mungo Martin and grandfather of Ellen Neel) in the early 1900s.

Tony Hunt carved this replica in 1987 to replace the older pole now in the Vancouver Museum. A thunderbird is on top and at the bottom (left) is a grizzly bear holding a human.

Totem poles tell a family's story and mark important events; they are kind of like a family coat-of-arms. Some of the symbols are: the eagle representing the kingdom of air, the whale the lordship of the sea, the wolf is the genius of land, and the frog is a link between the land and the sea.

* Kwakwaka'wakw is a term used to describe a group of Canadian First Nations people, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the mainland.

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