Thursday, 24 April 2014

Totem Poles in the Atrium

Before the Canadian Museum of History was called the Canadian Museum of History, it was called the Canadian Museum of Civilization. But before it was called the Canadian Museum of Civilization, it was called the National Museum of Man, and it shared the Victoria Memorial Museum Building with the Canadian Museum of Nature (then called the National Museum of Natural Sciences).

The two museums split up when I was four, so I only have vague memories of the way it used to be, and photographs from that era are nearly impossible to find. One thing I do remember is that there were totem poles in the atrium, but I can't remember any details about them.

But recently, two things happened. Firstly, I read A Museum for the Global Village, a fantastic book about the creation of the Museum of Civilization. It mentioned that among the many totem poles on display in the Grand Hall (a full-scale reconstruction of a composite Pacific Northwest Coast native village) were the very poles that had once stood in the VMMB's atrium. This should have been obvious -- it's not like they would throw them away! -- but it had never occurred to me.

The other thing that happened was that I finally found some pictures. These two photos come from the website of Edward J Cuhaci and Associates Architects Inc, the architectural firm that restored the VMMB in the late sixties:

They clearly show three poles in the atrium, and enabled me to identify exactly which poles they were. Here are photos of those poles as they are today, accompanied by descriptions excerpted from Raven's Village, a guide to the Grand Hall published in 1995.

House Waiting for Property Pole (Haida):

"The two figures at the base are Sus'an, mythical Sea Grizzly Bears. The lower one is wearing a tall hat with six potlatch rings, or skils, on it, and has a doorway through his abdomen. These two figures relate the myth about a young man who displeased his mother-in-law because she found him lazy. ... The son-in-law is depicted on the pole above Sea Grizzly Bear, wearing his Sea Grizzly Bear skin and clasping skils in his arms. ...

Three Watchmen are depicted at the top of the pole. The two small human figures on the sides are wearing skils, which were also worn by chiefs at potlatches. Each ring on the hat might have indicated the number of potlatches a chief had held. The central figure wears a hat sculpted in the shape of Killer Whale's fin. The figures appear to be watching -- either for guests or for enemies.

Below the Watchmen is Eagle with a hooked beak, and between his wings in Gunarh's wife. She is holding the dorsal fin of Killer Whale who, after her death, took her soul down to the country of whales. The myth describes how her husband tried to rescue her from the keepers of souls that live in the undersea world. ...

Below the woman's feet are the stylized fins and upturned tail of Killer Whale. Next is the face of the woman's husband, holding onto the head of Killer Whale. This pole dates from around 1875, and it once stood in front of a community house at Haina on an island near Skidegate."

Howkan Village Pole (Kaigani Haida):

"The pole depicts the story of the great flood. At the top is White Raven, as he was before he flew out of the smoke hole while stealing light from Sky Chief. Below are a series of skils with four humans clinging to the sides. The skils are on the head of Qingi, the supernatural father of White Raven, who was raising a totem pole when a great flood struck the world. As the water rose, his guests and relatives scrambled up the pole to save themselves from drowning. White Raven alighted on top of the pole, causing it to grow into a gigantic tree filled with the survivors of the flood. Below Qingi's extended tongue is Sculpin, and at the base of the pole is Qingi holding a human upside down between his bear-like claws. This pole was collected in early 1900 by Lord Bossom, who had it lashed to the deck of a ship and taken around Cape Horn to England. It was returned to Canada in 1969."

Kwaxsuu Pole (Nisga'a):

"[This] is a memorial pole that comes from the village of Angidah in the Nass River district and contains two grave boxes, although neither box actually contained human remains. The top box commemorates a chief who died in infancy, and has Grizzly Bear cub sitting on its lid. The lower box was put in place at the time when an important chief died; it has Wolf on its lid. Below the lower box is a face, representing a crest entitled Split Person. Grizzly Bear is next, holding a copper in his teeth, and at his feet is Bear cub, with his head pointing down. Another Grizzly Bear stands at the base of the pole, with a salmon in his mouth and a Bear cub between his legs. The Bear cub represents all the children of Grizzly Bear, and the faces on the Grizzly Bear's paws stand for the People of the Smoke Hole."

I also have this photo, of uncertain vintage:

It's a screenshot from this video about the more recent renovation of the Museum of Nature. The Kwaxsuu Pole and House Waiting for Property Pole can be seen on the left and right, but between them are two smaller poles.

Chief Qomoqua's Pole (Nuxalk):

"At the top of this pole is the blue face of the elusive supernatural Qomoqua, ruler of the undersea mythical creatures. On his head he wears Killer Whale ears that form a circular curl on each side. Beneath him is Owl; then comes Eagle, holding a disc in his claws. On the disc is the face of Chief Qomoqua, who commissioned the pole, and at the base is another image of his namesake, the supernatural Qomoqua. Legend says that people who are caught in whirlpools are carried down to Qomoqua's house below the sea."

Tallio Village Pole (Nuxalk):

"The disc represents Sun, with Eagle or Thunderbird perched on the top. Below the disc is the mythical Cannibal Bird, Giant Sharp Nose Man Eater at the North End of the World, whose ashes turned into mosquitoes when he was burned to death. Immediately below his down-turned lips is Beaver, and beneath him is the broad smiling face of an unidentified supernatural being. At the base is another face, with a sharp nose and a wide-open mouth, which was once used as the entrance to a house."

Here's a photo showing where all these poles are in the Grand Hall if you want to see them for yourself.

If you have any photos of the old Museum of Man, please let us know in the comments!


MacDonald, G.F., and Alsford, S. 1989. A Museum for the Global Village: The Canadian Museum of Civilization. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull. 235 pp.

Ruddell, N. 1995. Raven's Village: The Myths, Arts and Traditions of Native People from the Pacific Northwest Coast: Guide to the Grand Hall, Canadian Museum of Civilization. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull. 53 pp.