Monday, June 7, 2021

Totem Poles of Vancouver, British Columbia - A photo feature published in Mathrubhumi Yatra, June 2021

Article Published in Mathrubhumi Yatra, June 2021

Totem Poles of Vancouver, British Columbia

Dr. Sukumar Canada

Mathrubhumi Yatra - Page 79

Vancouver is located on the west coast of Canada and is the third-most populous city after Toronto and Montreal. However, in terms of population, it is a small city by Indian standards. Just 6.3 lakh people. Vancouver is in the province of British Columbia (5.1 million). Canada's population is 35 million with a land area three times that of India and India's population is 1.4 billion. Please note that the population of Canada is only as much as the population of Kerala State, the smallest state of India. The climate here in British Columbia is generally warmer than in the eastern states of Canada. It is a comfortable place to live with no severe cold or hot climate to worry about, but the cost of living is higher than that of other provinces in Canada. Home prices are also much higher than in most of the other major cities in North America.

British Columbia is a very important place for the Native Indians (Aboriginals or First Nations people) in Canada. Here they have special constitutional rights and privileges as well. Most of the public spaces, parks, and the lands on which the universities are located are all leased by the Canadian Government from the First Nations on a long-term basis. Stanley Park is an important part of the city center and is a major attraction for tourists. It is almost a sacred place for the citizens as it is a forest park within the bounds of a major Canadian city. The Totem Poles are one of the main cultural and historic attractions of Vancouver.

Totem poles are hand-carved sculptures, made with tall trees cut by Native Indian tribes of Canada and the United States to express their culture and tribal status. Sixty tribes in Alaska and along the Pacific Northwest coast have been making Totem Poles with great care to show their cultural specialties, stories, and traditional folklore. They feature intricately sculpted and painted tall wooden poles depicting stories that have been told for generations. They are like religious icons, but the carvings on these poles are not images of gods and goddesses like the sculptures we see in the Indian subcontinent. These sculptures depict different aspects of nature in general. We can see their revered eagles, salmons, whales, bears, frogs, wolves, forests, and trees on these poles that portray legends and historical events.

Totem poles are sometimes placed in the courtyards of large houses to show their importance in the community. They are also placed to commemorate an event in history or to celebrate the memory of the late great-grandparents of a tribe or a large family. In some places, poles are set up to embarrass politicians and others who have committed wrongdoings against the people, such as accepting bribes, engaging in corruption, or criminal activities. These so-called ‘shame-poles’ are often removed when the perpetrator corrects their mistake and makes amends with the community.

After carving the tree trunks by hand, the artists paint the figurines using bright colors made of natural materials. Black (coal, graphite), red (flowers, red clay), and blue (copper sulfide) are widely used.

The depiction of a black crow on top of a pole represents the creator. The figure of an eagle conveys peace and friendship. The whale shows strength. "The eagle is my grandfather" is seen written on some of the totem poles showing the intimate nature of the tribe’s relationship with nature. They treat their ancestors as pious as gods themselves. 

The youth of the First Nations still carry the tradition alive by listening to the opinions of the tribal chief and elders, even in this modern times. Elder mentors of the First Nations pass on the techniques and traditions of carving Totem Poles to the new generation with great pride. Getting ready to carve a Totem Pole is a large community event and a big celebration involving procedures like meditation, singing, drumming, and smoke ceremonies. The Government of Canada also promotes these activities through various forums. Totem poles can be seen prominently displayed at the Vancouver International Airport, Universities, and official buildings all over British Columbia.

(First Nations people do have their share of problems and must deal with the remnants of colonial atrocities afflicted on them for centuries that are challenging their survival, even now. But their culture and traditions are so resilient that they have survived the onslaught of abuse for such a long time. I wish to dedicate this article to the memory of the Canadian residential school victims.)   

Mathrubhumi Yatra - Page 80

Mathrubhumi Yatra - Page 81

Mathrubhumi Yatra - Page 82

1 comment:

  1. Reached here while searching for Vancouver and the Indian community. I am originally from Thrissur, Kerala, presently living in Berlin, Germany and planning to move to Vancouver.