September 24, 2017

Totem Poles of Alert Bay

During our brief stay in Alert Bay we walked through the town, and around Cormorant Island. It's an easy walk and highly enjoyable. People are friendly and happy to share their stories and the stories of their community, and one of those stories is that of the totem poles of Alert Bay.

Totem poles are visual representations about the people who erect them, their ceremonial privileges and identity. The erection of a totem pole is usually celebrated with a potlatch.

In Alert Bay some totem poles are fairly new and others are very old. The Kwakwaka'wakw people believe that nothing lasts forever. When a totem pole is damaged, or falls to earth, it has served its purpose and it is time to let it go. Totem poles are not maintained nor re-painted. Often, recorded information about the totem pole is scant and only the pole's owner, and its carver, can truly describe the significance of the symbols.

The totem pole located near the traditional Big House is considered the world's tallest. Carved during the 1960s, it was raised in 1973. At the time it was an impressive 53 metres in height, but in November of 2007 the top of the totem pole fell to the ground during a Nimpkish wind. Apart from its height, it is unique in that unlike most totem poles, which are specific to a particular family, its figures represent some of of the tribes of the Kwakwaka'wakw.

The traditional burial grounds, and the current 'Namgis burial grounds, where many of the totem poles are located, are not open for tromping about. There's nothing to prevent people from wandering in, but respectfully, we are all asked to honour both the totem poles and the land. The totem poles are easily viewed from the roadside at both locations.

In the village cemetery, the combination of Christian and Indigenous symbols is, at first, confusing, and then... captivating.    

Photos by Jeem. Copyright 2017 by Jim Murray.

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