Wandering Weekends – Vancouver Canada and its totem poles.

When I was a kid one of the things I knew (from watching TV and movies) was that Indian tribes all had totem poles – and they were representations of fierce, protective spirits.

It turns out I was wrong on pretty much every count.

First up, totem poles were erected only by a relatively small number of “Indian” tribes (now more correctly referred to as First Nations people).

They’re artworks from communities in the Pacific North West – Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington state – and the only time they have been seen outside the area is when they have been ‘on display’ (or on entertainment screens)

Representations of protective spirits? Well, not really – that’s probably an unconscious amalgam of totem poles and Polynesian tikis which represent powerful gods.

Instead, totem poles are kinship markers – the very word ‘totem’ appears to come from ‘doodem’, an Ojibwe word meaning ‘clan’ or ‘kinship group’.

So the poles are part historical story, part ownership statement, part spiritual reverence, but mostly art.

Almost all the examples we see today are less than 100 years old because even the mighty western red cedar decays, eventually, in the wet conditions of the PNW.

So how did I find out that almost everything I knew about totem poles was wrong?

We were in Vancouver, Canada – just before the covid-19 pandemic stopped Australians from gallivanting around the world – and we decided to check out Stanley Park because it looked like a nice place to take a walk.

As we wandered around the 400 hectare parkland, we came across Brockton Point – and a display of nine totem poles.

Each comes with its own story, from different Aboriginal Nations, using different forms.

There are plenty of signs to explain – and a ubiquitous gift-shop (“Legends of the Moon”) with more information.

I had no expectations when we grabbed a city bus to head out for the day – but I have to say it was serendipitous, because the totem poles were (like the rest of the park, and its kilometres of walking trails) a genuine delight.

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