Totem poles of British Columbia

Aboriginal art has inspired generations of Western artists, from Australia, Europe and North America. Without discussing the issue of cultural appropriation, I offer the gallery above as documentary homage to works that equal the greatest among world civilizations.

Last week, I featured a totem-themed series of photographs on my Instagram gallery, drawn from my travels in British Columbia, by bicycle and car.

In the case of the former transportation choice, I spent two months on the road — much of it unpaved — in 1994, cycling through Yukon, Alaska and British Columbia, completing a circle from Vancouver Island. The expedition was sponsored in part by Kodak Canada.

Along the way, I pedalled through Port Hardy, Skagway, Whitehorse, Dease Lake, Telegraph Creek, Gitanyow, Smithers, ‘Ksan, Prince George, Williams Lake, Dog Creek (on the wild and arid Fraser River Plateau) Pavillion, Mount Curry and Whistler. Most, if not all of these communities were once exclusively  home to indigenous people, before European contact. Many still maintain vibrant First Nations cultures, centred on art representing their clans and stories.

Gitanyow and ‘Ksan have provided the most memorable totem experiences on my travels. Making a last minute decision to brave the bumpy road into Gitanyow (AKA Kitwancool), after a long 100 km+ ride down the final stretch of the 800-kilometre Stewart-Cassiar Highway (37), I was treated to an extraordinary sunset illuminating the 20-or-so poles in the village.

A day or two later, I visited the Hazeltons, on the Yellowhead Highway (16). I stopped to assist a young Wet’suwet’en man fix a flat tire on his bike (one of only two flats I repaired on my tour!), before crossing the famous Hagwilget Canyon Suspension Bridge over the Bulkley River into Old Hazelton and ‘Ksan, at the confluence of The Bulkley and Skeena Rivers.

The reconstructed historical village and art centre at ‘Ksan is a world-class attraction, featuring some of the most beautiful totems in the province. I returned in 2012, by car, to marvel once again at the majesty of these great works of art.

On that trip, I also drove north beside the Skeena River to the Village of Kispiox. There, at the edge of the community, where the Skeena meets the Kispiox River, 24 totem poles (Gyadim Gan) stand watch over the houses of the Gitksan Anspayaxw clan.

Back in B.C.’s capital of Victoria, the Royal British Columbia Museum protects a collection of First Nations’ art, including ancient totem poles. Many aging icons were brought here by agreement with First Nations chiefs. Reproductions by master carvers like Mungo Martin (1881 – 1962), a Kwakwaka’wakw artist from Fort Rupert near Port Hardy, replaced the decaying originals.

Martin’s reproductions and original carvings can be found in Gitanyow, Vancouver, England, Mexico and Thunderbird Park in Victoria.

No discussion of First Nations’ art should omit mention of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, which houses an extraordinary exhibit of totems and ethnographic materials.

Here are more B.C. First Nations communities I have visited (sites open in new tab): New Aiyansh (Gitlaxt’aamiks/Nisga’a Nation) | Pavillion (Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation) | Telegraph Creek, Iskut (Tahltan) | Bella Coola (Nuxalk) | Bella Bella (Heiltsuk) |

Story behind Gawa Gyani dance collaboration (as seen in photo gallery)

Raymond Parker

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