First Nation Totem Poles… North to Alaska

The totem pole of Thunderbird and the Wild Woman of the Woods found in Duncan, British Columbia on Vancouver Island.

Third times a charm. Right? Peggy and I are out kayaking among the Orca whales up off the northern tip of Vancouver Island as this blog is posted. Or I should say reposted for the second time. It’s appropriate given our trip, however. We are in First Nation country and we once again drove through Duncan. And, as many of you know, I am a big fan of First Nation and Native American art. –Curt

Dzonoqua comes sneaking through the woods, hands outstretched, red lips pursed and whistling, “ooh, ooh” to attract small children who have wandered into the forests. Some stories say she eats the whiny ones. She is also known as the Wild Woman of the Woods or Mrs. Bigfoot. Her large, dangling breasts capture the spirit of Salmon. Thunderbird perches on her shoulders. His wings crash together and make thunder; his eyes shoot out lightning.

Peggy and I, along with our friends Ken and Leslie Lake, visited Duncan BC on Vancouver Island to check out the numerous totem poles carved by First Nation artists and placed throughout the town.

The close relation of First Nation people to Bear, Eagle, Raven, Whale, Owl, Wolf, Beaver, Salmon, Otter and other animals stretches back to ancient times. Families would adopt particular animals as their totems and then carve these animals into totem poles. The poles would serve to both protect and instruct the families. Some families were even known to shape shift into their totem animal. (Jacob, morphing into a wolf in the Twilight series, is a modern example.)

The arrival of whites in the Northwest had a devastating impact on the people and culture of the First Nation tribes. Disease wiped out whole populations. The practice of native religion and the carving of totem poles were prohibited. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the art of totem pole carving was revived.

It thrives today. Native artists continue to carve traditional themes but they have also extended their interpretations and honed their skills. While the totem poles and masks still serve as important mythic symbols to First Nation people, they have also become a source of pride to all who live in BC and the Northwest. I might add they have also become an important attraction for tourist dollars.

Duncan BC and native artists have done an excellent job of displaying totem poles representative of the north coast. Visiting the town, located on the Trans-Canada highway halfway between Victoria and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, is well worth the stop.

To enhance your visit, I highly recommend stopping by the Visitor’s Center and picking up the book, “The Totem Walk of Duncan” written by Joan Chisholm and illustrated by Crysta Bouchard and R. Howe. For more information go to:

Thunderbird in flight. I loved the bright colors of this totem pole in Duncan BC.

This totem pole in Duncan BC shows the spirit of the First Nation artist in the eagle’s chest. Eagle rests on Whale and has Wolf carved on his flukes. Both Whale and Wolf provide powerful protection for the person resting his hands on the flukes.

This photo provides a detail of the totem pole above. Note the fine detail of the carved fingers.

This totem pole was meant as a thank you from one chief to another. Raven perches on top and delivers the pole. Eagle is under Raven and represents the power of the chief, a member of the Eagle Clan. The chief’s son is next. His open hand symbolizes “thank you.” Raven, like Coyote of the Southwest, is a trickster. Both are among my favorite mythological animals.

Most totem poles are highly symbolic. This is a heraldic pole. The frog on top represents wisdom, the bear below power and courage, and the seal a spiritual being that can travel easily between spiritual and physical realms. The red and black mean strength and protection. I see it as one pole accomplishes all.

The bear’s tongue and wide grin caught my attention in this Duncan BC totem pole. I thought at first he might be sampling the guy he is holding in his paws. Apparently it means he is about to shape shift.

I am struck by the sheer power captured in some of Duncan BC totem poles. This eagle is an excellent example.

A different perspective on Bear. I enjoyed looking at and photographing the specific faces seen on the Duncan BC totem poles.

If it weren’t sacrilegious, I’d name this totem pole face smiley.

And finally, a Duncan BC totem pole I simply couldn’t resist. How could anyone say no to a pose and eyes like this?

NEXT BLOG: We cross the border into Canada and are reintroduced to the delicate art of carving with a chainsaw.

24 thoughts on “First Nation Totem Poles… North to Alaska

  1. Nice totem pix Curt. We toured BC, and saw some very nice totems as well. But for some reason, our photos disappeared. It’s still a mystery how it happened, but we suspect that when we bought a new computer, something got erased that shouldn’t have. These days, we do double backups. Anyway, it’s nice to see your photos. ~James

    • Sorry to hear about your photos, James. Our friends just managed to erase a number of photos on their camera. Can’t be too careful in this digital age. Most of my photos are located in at least three locations. –Curt

  2. You’re a little wrkniog dog with no tail. That’s too much work for me. Mom better give me my prawns as soon as I ask for them, or I’ll put the bitey on her ankle- no, not really, that’s too much work, too. I think I need a snooze right now.

  3. Hi bryanBelieve it or not we met back in the mid nineties at a chcurh called Network Church in High Point NC.You were a blessing then and I know the Lord brought you to my mind today. You were so down to earth. I own a radio station now in Hamilton Texas. The radio station is a classic country format. I do a live program on Sundays at 7:30 called Speaking recovery. Its a recovery based program, kinda like a meeting on the air. Anyway i’ll be in touch, maybe we can break bread together again. Tim

  4. If I hadn’t stopped by my reader for the first time in forever, I would have missed this. WordPress doesn’t send out an email on a repost. It may be that changing the title will trigger the system.

    Anyhow, I’m glad I found it, because the art is absolutely fantastic. I’ve seen totem poles, but I think now they may have been purely decorative and essentially meaningless — you know, the sort of thing that shows up at the main lodge at a resort. These fairly jump off the page, filled with energy.

    Hope your trip is going well!

    • Thanks Linda. I find totem poles to be powerful art. Like petroglyphs, they capture the essence of a people’s belief system. Knowing the stories behind the art adds tremendously its enjoyment and appreciation.

      Peggy and I just came off our kayak trip and are madly getting ready for Burning Man. Kayaking was great but I will leave my blogs to tell the story. Now… where did I leave my face mask to keep the dust out…? –Curt

  5. I’ve been to Alaska once, but instead of kayaking, we were on a cruise ship. Talk about roughing it. 😉

    I wanted to bring back a totem pole but decided not to. In retrospect, I wish I had. We loved the Victoria Island area in British Columbia, too.

    Have fun!

    • Hi Carrie,

      We watched cruise ships and Alaska ferries making their way between Vancouver Island and the mainland. We kept out of the way. 🙂 I suspect the folks on board were saying, “Oh, look at the Kayakers.” It was a great trip.

      Peggy and I went on a cruise ship to Alaska once. Another time, when I was going to work in Alaska, I took the Alaska Ferry up. –Curt

    • I really like the the fact that First Nation artists are continuing the tradition.

      Our kayaking trip was a kick. Peggy and I got back last night and are now preparing for our next adventure: Burning Man. We leave Sunday. It may be a few weeks before we get the kayak journey up, but there are lots of good photos, and memories. –Curt

      • ‘Burning Man’ – I had to Google that!

        You two are like crazy kids, that should be quite the adventure. Between the Orcas and the desert art you will surely have some very entertaining and captivating upcoming posts.

        Wishing you no dust storms during your stay in Black Rock City – Enjoy!

      • The dust storms are almost guaranteed. LOL But Peggy and I have goggles and bandanas. The danger is in getting lost since there can be zero visibility. Once we got lost. 🙂 I carry my compass now. –Curt

  6. Fascinating and beautiful. I’m surprised by the color. Have they always been so colorful and vivid or is that just true of those being made now? Great stuff Curt. Thanks for sharing.

  7. OMG~Without a doubt my favorite post you’ve ever done!!!! This was spectacular photo’s Curt! The color so vibrant it almost seems as though it’s animated!! Breathtaking…sharing it now! 😉 xoxo ❤

  8. Love this post too, Curt, and thanks to Inion N. Mathair for posting it on FB so it could be better noticed. I’m in Eagle River, AK with my folks now, but no kayaks or totems in sight. I envy you and Peggy’s adventures, but am thrilled that you share them with us 🙂

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