Artistic Significance of Recent Poles Raised By the First Nations of Haida Gwaii

The totem poles raised by Haida Gwaii’s First Nations highlight how the natives have used art as a means to transmit their culture from generation to generation. Carved on poles, the epic sculptures are used by the Native inhabitants of the Northwest Coast of Canada as representations of the people’s beliefs, traditions and customs. As such, although the poles have been appropriated into popular culture as a reflection of fashion, the poles raised recently highlight the significance that art plays in sustaining the culture of different communities. The significance of the poles, therefore, is in reconnecting the Haida to their heritage, a heritage that had been adulterated by their displacement following the arrival of Europeans in Canada and their near extermination by epidemics such as smallpox.

In the history of the Haida, totem poles played a central role in expression of their customs and beliefs. As Jessiman recounts, Chief G’psgolox for example commissioned the carving of a totem pole to commemorate the reassurance that the spirit Tsooda had given him after the loss of his children and clan members to smallpox.[1] Faced with despair after the death of his children, the chief had veered off into the forest where, as the tale goes, he met the spirit Tsooda.[2] On recounting his predicament to the spirit, the spirit had helped the chief experience a spiritual reconnection with his dead children and clan members. On return to the village, the chief had thus commissioned the carving of the totem pole in commemoration of this meeting with the spirit. Such a story highlights the traditional significance that the totem poles held in the lives of the Haida. As such, raising of the recent poles helps the current inhabitants reconnect with their history and thus, in respect to art, helps perpetuate the means through which the Haidan society expressed their beliefs and customs.

The raising of the totem poles also helps to highlight art as a means through which learning progresses. The carving of the totem poles was, for instance, a process through which new artists learned from the master carvers. As Motzkus observes, a totem pole was never carved by a single artist but was a process where as “a master carver carved one side of the pole … an apprentice carved the other side.[3]” Through this process, the novice carvers were introduced to the art and eventually became masters who would transmit the same knowledge to future generations. This means of transfer of knowledge had been suppressed by the demise of the Native people’s art where the carved poles were taken away from the islands to private collections and museums where they bore no cultural significance. The raising of the poles in Haida  Gwaii thus helps to return art as a central means of learning in the community.

Moreover, the raising of the Haida Gwaii poles signifies the appreciation of art as a way to recognize diversity. Before the poles were raised, the Haidan culture had progressively become overpowered by a western culture that had led to destruction of habitats that served as the mainstay of such cultural expressions.[4] Raising of the poles thus serves as a way to highlight the importance of art in fostering co-existence of diverse communities. In this regard, the Haida will be able to express their culture without having the fear that their works, which are integral to their beliefs, would be taken away to far off places where they would lose their symbolic meanings.

As the foregoing discussion demonstrates, the raising of recent poles in Haida Gwaii highlights how art acts as a means of transmitting culture, traditions, and knowledge. Through these poles, the Haida will be able to reconnect with their heritage, learn the meanings embodied in the totem poles, highlight the central role art played in learning processes, and highlight the role of art in appreciating diversity. As such, the raising of the poles re-establishes art as a central discipline that is essential to the survival of a society.

End Notes.

[1] Stacey R. Jessiman, “The Repatriation of the G’psgolox TotemPole: A Study of its Context, Process, and Outcome,” International Journal of Cultural Property 18, no. 3 (2011): 365–391.

[2] Ibid., 366.

[3] Heidi Tolles Motzkus, “The Totems of Haida Gwaii,” Phi Kappa Phi Forum 85, no. 3 (2005):  8-9.

[4] Ibid.

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