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Totem Poles Admired Worldwide

Among the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes, the Thunderbird with its outstretched wings is a prominent motif. Widely imitated with the revitalization of Northwest Coast art in the 1950s, the Thunderbird became an internationally recognized icon of indigenous peoples. Two Thunderbird posts that originally had served as interior corner posts of a bighouse were erected in 1924 as a tourist attraction in Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia (BC). The posts were carved by Kwakiutl artist Yaakutlas (Charlie James) of 'Yalis (Alert Bay) for Chief Tsa-wee-norrh of Gway'i (Kingcome Village). Years later the posts were restored by his granddaughter, Ellen May Neel (1933 - 1967), one of the first indigenous women to take up carving professionally. Her own "Kaka'solas" Thunderbird, carved in 1955, stands nearby (right).


"Kaka'solas" by Ellen Neel
Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC


Thunder Bird Totem Pole, Stanley Park
Carved by Kwakiutl Yaakutlas, c. 1924

Kwicksutaineuk Ellen Neel, 1948
Painting a miniature Thunderbird

Kaka'solas Totem Pole, Stanley Park
Carved by Ellen Neel, 1955


In 1931, a 37 ft long totem pole was sent from a Nisga'a community to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh where it remains on display today (right). From an article published in 1931: "The pole was erected some 70 or 80 years ago at the village of Angyada, on the lower Nass River, British Columbia. It was amongst the oldest in the country, no poles being known which are more than about 80 years old. The pole was the property of Neestsawl, a chief of the Nass, and head of a family of the Raven phratry (Kanhada). It was erected as a memorial to Tsawit, a chief in the family of Neestsawl, soon after he had been killed in a raid by the Tshimshian against the Niska of the lower Nass."

"Tsawit was next in line to the head chief Neestsawl, who was one of the wealthiest chiefs of the Nass; consequently one of the finest poles was set up in his memory. The carving was executed by two men: Oyay, of Gitwinksihlk (People of Lizards) at the canyon of the Nass, and his assistant Gwanes. Both carvers belonged to the Pireweed (Gisrast) phratry. Oyay was the foremost carver of the Nass River district, at the best period of totem pole art (about 1840 - 1880). . . The pole was known by two names: (a) Hlkwarcet (Small hat) from the hat worn by the figure at the top; or (b) Masrayait (White Bullhead) from the fish represented on it. The figures carved on the pole were in effect family crests, illustrative of the largely mythological history of the family" A Totem Pole from the Nass River.

Nisga'a carver Norman Tait, 2004.
Name strengthening ceremony, Vancouver, BC


Nisga'a totem pole by Oyay and Gwanes.
Royal Scottish Museum, 2007

Another Nisga'a pole was "donated" by the Canadian National Railways to the Musée d' Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris. It was said to be from the hand of the same carver, Oyay, and stood next to the pole sent to Edinburgh. Barbeau's principal informant was Lazarus Moody of Gitrhatin whose wife, 'Ntsitskaos, was the original owner of the hereditary pole.

Oyay's great grandson is carver Norman Tait, born in the Nisga'a village of Kincolith on the Nass River in 1941. In 1991 Tait visited the Royal Scottish Museum to see the totem pole carved by his ancester (above). To further his study of Nisga'a totem poles, Tait visited museums in Madrid, Berlin, Paris, New York and Osaka. Left he is seen wearing a traditional cedar hat during a name strengthening ceremony for his totem poles in Capilano Mall, North Vancouver in 2004. Tait helped revive the ancient Nisga'a style, which he describes as "about halfway between Haida and Tlingit art" and today his carvings can be found in public and private collections around the world.


Left: Paris, France
Musée de l'Homme
Haida, collected 1939
Owner: Chief Skanish

Middle: Cambridge, UK
Archaeology Museum
Haida, collected 1939
Carver unknown

Right: London, UK
British Museum
Kwakiutl, collected 1870
Carver unknown

Left: Chicago, US
Field Museum
Haida, collected 1893
Carvers unknown

Middle: Washington, US
Smithsonian Institution
Haida & Tlingit, c. 1900
Carvers unknown

Right: Berlin, Germany
Museum of Ethnology
Haida, collected 1881
Carver unknown

Left: Melbourne, Australia
Victoria Museum
Haida, Skidegate, 1911
Carver unknown

Middle: Toronto,
Canada Royal Ontario
Nisga'a, c. 1870
Collected 1933

Right: Liverpool, UK
City Museum
Haida, Haina, c. 1860
Collected 1901

Left: Los Angeles, US
Southwestern Museum
of the American Indian
Haida, carver unknown

Middle: New York, US
American Museum of
Natural History Haida,
collected c. 1880

Right: Philadelphia, US
Pennsylvania Museum
of Archeology Tlingit,
collected c. 1915


"Beaver Pole," Field Museum.
Carved by Nisga'a Norman Tait (below)


Left: Hamburg
Greenpeace Germany
Dedicated to Ista Nuxalk
carvers, 1999

Middle: Bergen, Norway
Nordness Park Carver
Gift from Seattle

Right: Bonn, Germany
Sculpture Park
Tony Hunt,
Kwakiutl Gift from Canada, 1979

Left: Gisborne, NZ
Capt. Cook Memorial
Carver unknown
Gift from Canada, 1969

Middle: Morioka, Japan
Iwate Park
Carver unknown
Gift from Victoria, BC

Right: Uttersberg, Sweden
Sculpture Park
Don Yeomans, Haida
Purchase, 1990

Left: Bronx, New York
NY Zoological Gardens
Carver unknown
Purchase, 1964

Middle: Leiden, NL
Silyas, Nuxalk Bella
Coola, BC
Purchase, 2007

Rigth: Dortmund,
Westfalen Park
Carver unknown
Gift from Canada

Left: Sydney,
Australian Museum
Richard Hunt,
Kwakiutl Purchase,

Middle: Yorkshire, UK
Sculpture Park
Tim Paul, Hesquiaht
Purchase, 1987

Right: London, UK
Horniman Museum
Nathan Jackson, Tlingit
Purchase, 1985