About the Totems

Two Families in One House

The local community acknowledges that the totem pole collection is located on the traditional lands of the Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) people. Cowichan Tribes has the largest First Nations population in BC and their oral tradition states they have lived here since time immemorial. The climate of the Cowichan Valley produces mild winters and warm summers and supplies a ready source of food and shelter for all the inhabitants. Quw’utsun’ in the local Hul’q’umi’num language means ‘sun warming the back’.

Duncan began as a village called Alderlea in 1887, when William Chalmers Duncan donated farmland for the town site. The City of Duncan was incorporated in 1912. The City shares a boundary with Cowichan Tribes lands in the heart of the City’s commercial core. The close proximity of the two communities requires both the City government and Cowichan Tribes, governed by Chief and Council, to work together to tackle issues such as infrastructure, services and community programs. Both communities continue to foster understanding by participating in events that honour each community’s heritage.

The Collection

The City of Totems, as Duncan is known, is an on-going project that has developed one of the world’s largest, outdoor collection of publicly displayed totem poles. The project began in 1985 and was designed to attract visitors to Duncan. It has involved the enthusiasm and support of many talented individuals and organizations and has cultivated cross-cultural appreciation and cooperation. In 2012, the centenary of Duncan provided an opportunity for the City to develop dedicated signage for the totem pole collection. Oral histories undertaken with the carvers and their families tell the stories depicted on the poles, which are on view throughout the downtown core.

House Posts and Totem Poles

The peoples of the Northwest Coast had house posts or totem poles whose design told the family’s story. This was a way to pass down information to future generations. The designs represent family crests or traditional symbols in Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw culture.

City of Totems

In the early 20th century, non-native communities started erecting totem poles in prominent locations to encourage visitors. Coast Salish master carver Simon Charlie’s Salish Bear pole was carved as a part of the BC Centennial initiative in 1966 called the “Route of the Totems,” created to celebrate Vancouver Island joining mainland British Columbia in 1866.

In 1985, Mayor Douglas Barker initiated a totem pole project that would put Duncan on the map. Raising poles throughout the City would accomplish several things: it would celebrate the close ties between the City and the Quw’utsun’ people; it would further beautify the City; and, it would distinguish Duncan as a community that recognizes and appreciates the unique art form of the totem pole and all it represents. Mayor Barker’s enthusiasm for the “City of Totems” spread to the City’s Councillors, Cowichan Tribes Chief and Council, and the business community.

In 1986 Duncan was officially designated the City of Totems. The designs of the poles reflect peoples’ lives, businesses and families. The poles represent two cultures coming together.

The collection has grown from those original poles commissioned in the 1980s. In 2012, the City commissioned a new pole to celebrate the centennial of the City of Duncan, together with the new signage to complement its outdoor collection. The oral histories collected by Jane Mertz during this project have created access to the previously-untold stories of the artists and their families. The carvers’ cultural knowledge is now preserved and all of the information gathered during the project is housed in the Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives for future visitors and scholars.

Duncan, 100 years – Centennial Project

As a part of its centennial program, the Totem Interpretive Project, and the resulting signage, provided an opportunity to acknowledge the voice of the artists in the stories of the poles they carved. With financial assistance from the Department of Canadian Heritage, the City of Duncan’s Totem Committee was able to fulfill a long-held vision to provide interpretation of its world-class collection.

The project sourced the original stories of the poles from the carvers who created them. The majority of the carvers were interviewed for this project.

Where the carver had passed away, the stories were shared by a family member. The signs installed at each totem pole tell the story of the pole from the carver’s perspective. Each carver had a specific reason for selecting the figures on the pole. The enhanced signage honours the carvers’ work. The artists who were able to participate in the Totem Interpretive Project all expressed their gratitude that their stories were being preserved as an integral part of the City’s extensive totem pole collection. The interpretive signs describe the many important local and world events depicted on the poles.

Pole Raising Ceremony

The First Nations of the Northwest Coast relied on oral tradition to record their history and carved totem poles to create a permanent record of historical events. Historically, “ceremony” was an essential method of bonding and proclaiming family relationships. They were testimony to family identity and were often held to pass down long-held family names to a new generation. Ceremonies were held as a part of oral tradition to bring people together to witness significant events. By accepting the gifts that were distributed during the ceremony, guests agree to remember the events that they witnessed that day.

Dances were as much of an art form as carved figures and poles. Over the years, the pole-raising ceremonies have included the Quw’utsun’ Tzinquaw Dancers, the Hunt Family Dancers, the Copper Maker Dancers from Tsakis (Fort Rupert), and the Little Raven Dancers.

The ceremonies have come to be a combination of traditions and protocols from both native and non-native communities. Protocols continue to be a learned process and every effort is made to adhere to them.

For the raising of the Centennial Pole in 2012, First Nations speakers and dancers were hired to provide an insight into the local culture and ceremony. Gifts were distributed to over 300 guests.

Community of Learning

During their interviews, most artists acknowledged the influence of the master carvers from within their communities. Simon Charlie was one of Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan’s) cultural leaders who taught many of the artists who have poles in this collection and countless others. “I liked his (Simon’s) art, it was very powerful art… it impressed me a lot. His ideas on forms…I’m very thankful that he gave me that gift because all my brothers and nephews, and my son are all carvers, all artists because of that (gift of carving). I’m very grateful to Simon Charlie for that.” (Doug LaFortune, Interview, Sep 2012).

Cedar Tree and Uses

Known as the Mother Tree by First Nations, the Western Red Cedar tree (Thuja plicata, Pacific Northwest, Cypress family) was used for all of the poles in this collection. Many artists spoke of a spiritual connection to the original tree. For thousands of years, cedar sustained the peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America by providing material for everyday items: ceremonial masks, medicine, transportation, housing, fishing nets, food bowls, clothing (hats, capes, diapers), firewood, storage boxes, and much more.

“When a great tree is chosen for a totem pole or a canoe, there are ceremonies to celebrate the rebirth of the tree into a new existence. These ceremonies reflect our understanding that there is a spiritual connection between man and tree, that we are all aspects of a greater whole, and that the apparent differences between flesh and wood are insignificant compared to the kinship between the spirit of the tree and the spirit of the carver.” (Richard Krentz, Interview, Nov 2012).

Tools

The carvers of the Northwest Coast make their own handles for their tools that fit his or her hands. Indigenous carvers have proved very adaptable to modern technology use and will use any new technology or technique available to them. Although technology has changed and the art form has evolved over the years, carvers still include the use of traditional tools of stone hammers, adzes and knives like their grandfathers.