Carving their place in history

Special to The Times

A spectacular array of totem poles greeted me as I stepped from the bus at Thunderbird Park, a prime tourist attraction in downtown Victoria. Not far away, at the Royal British Columbia Museum, I found another collection -- among them some of the world’s oldest known totem poles.

It was my first encounter with this fascinating world of aboriginal culture and art.

Mysterious and frequently monumental, totem poles are the work of a handful of tribes of native peoples living on the Northwest coast of British Columbia and Alaska.

Like the 10-ton stone statues on Easter Island, totem poles are an expression of human creativity and a telling of the past. With these artworks, aboriginal craftsmen preserve details of their ancestry and culture. Exploits, momentous events and mythical beliefs are all part of the stories they tell.


I was captivated by those tales last year as I traveled with my husband, James, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. Thunderbird Park, with poles representing the work of many villages, has offered visitors a look at the craft for nearly half a century. Its pieces -- and those at the nearby museum -- whetted our appetites to see and learn more at the same time they illustrated history and a carving tradition passed from generation to generation.

We discovered other Pacific Northwest sites that also offer impressive displays. Accompanied by local guide Joan Looy, James and I explored various Vancouver Island sites. One of our favorites was in Duncan, a 45-minute drive north of Victoria.

A self-guided tour takes in 41 of Duncan’s 80 poles (maps are available at the Cowichan Valley Museum); the city is also home to the Quw’utsun’ Cultural and Conference Centre, a 6-acre facility owned and operated by the Cowichan tribe that sits on the Cowichan River.

On a cool, sunny day, we heard stories and legends of the Cowichan people, the largest native band in British Columbia; we watched a colorful display of song and dance by the Tzinquaw dancers; and we learned more about totem poles.


Contrary to common belief, they are not part of native religious practice. They’re made of Western red cedar, and most of the older poles we see today were carved in the 19th century. Anthropologists say the discovery of primitive tools indicates that wood decoration was underway as long ago as 5000 BC. Pigments used for coloring were, in the past, derived from wolf moss, hemlock and yellow cedar bark, various minerals and even salmon roe.

In the heyday of totem pole carving there were poles for different occasions. At Quw’utsun’, we saw poles on which the arms of main figures are stretched out in a welcoming gesture. Such poles are frequently seen on coastlines, placed strategically to welcome travelers.

There also are memorial poles erected to honor the dead and mortuary poles where the ashes of a distinguished elder were, after cremation, placed in a box and left at the pole’s highest elevation.

Totem poles began to fade out of existence after potlatches -- the parties that accompanied the erection of the poles -- were banned by the Canadian government in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


But in the 1960s and ‘70s, craftsmen and scholars began resurrecting the craft, and new poles were carved for museums, parks and collectors.

The tallest pole in existence towers 173 feet at Alert Bay; until 1995, the title was held by a 127-foot pole in Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. Carved by Chief Mungo Martin and two apprentices, it was at the time called “the world’s tallest history book” -- an appropriate title for an intriguing, remarkable artwork.




On the trail of tall stories


From LAX to Vancouver, Air Canada, Alaska and United fly nonstop; America West flies direct (stop, no change of plane). Restricted air fares begin at $256.

To reach Victoria, board a Pacific Coast Lines bus at the Vancouver International Airport; it transports passengers via ferry directly to Victoria, Vancouver Island. One-way fare is about $36 per person, including ferry crossing.



The Fairmont Empress Hotel, 721 Government St., Victoria; (250) 384-8111, Enjoy the elegant lifestyle of a bygone age in the Fairmont Empress on the edge of the Inner Harbour. Afternoon tea ($32-$43) is a gourmet experience. Doubles from about $188, including breakfast.

Beaconsfield Inn, 998 Humboldt St., Victoria; (250) 384-4044, This Edwardian manor is within easy walking distance of the beach, a fitness center and theater, and boating, fishing, hiking, whale-watching tours and tour buses. Doubles start at $98, including breakfast.



Malahat Mountain Inn Restaurant, 265 Trans-Canada Hwy., Malahat; (800) 913-1944, Glorious views over Saanich Inlet. Try the steamed mussels, $14, or the grilled wild salmon, $18.

Pagliacci’s, 1011 Broad St., Victoria; (250) 386-1662. One of Victoria’s oldest and most popular restaurants. Specializes in Italian cuisine. Pastas start at about $8; meat entrees start at about $20.


Royal British Columbia Museum and Thunderbird Park, 675 Belleville St., Victoria; (250) 356-7226, An exceptional display of totem poles can be seen in Thunderbird Park beside the museum.


Cowichan Valley Museum, P.O. Box 1014, Duncan; (250) 746-6612. Obtain a map at the museum, in the Duncan Train Station, that guides you to 41 of the city’s 80 poles.

Quw’utsun’ Cultural and Conference Centre, 200 Cowichan Way, Duncan; (250) 746 8119, Traditional dance, multimedia presentation, native cuisine and information on totem poles. Adult admission, $11.20; family of four, $25.


British Columbia Tourism, (800) 435-5622,


-- Anne Gordon