Another Postcrossing postcard received earlier this year came from British Columbia, one of Canada’s provinces along the west coast of that country. I’ve long been interested in Native American culture and was thrilled to see the totem poles on this card. These are displayed in Vancouver’s Stanley Park and are British Columbia’s most visited tourist attraction.
Totem poles are monumental carvings, a type of Northwest Coast art, consisting of poles, posts or pillars, carved with symbols or figures. They are usually made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America (Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia). The word totem derives from the Algonquian (most likely Ojibwe) word odoodem [oˈtuːtɛm], “his kinship group”. The carvings may symbolize or commemorate cultural beliefs that recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. The poles may also serve as functional architectural features, welcome signs for village visitors, mortuary vessels for the remains of deceased ancestors, or as a means to publicly ridicule someone. Given the complexity and symbolic meanings of totem pole carvings, their placement and importance lies in the observer’s knowledge and connection to the meanings of the figures.
Totem pole carvings were likely preceded by a long history of decorative carving, with stylistic features borrowed from smaller prototypes. Eighteenth-century explorers documented the existence of decorated interior and exterior house posts prior to 1800; however, due to the lack of efficient carving tools, sufficient wealth, and leisure time to devote to the craft, the monumental poles placed in front of native homes along the Pacific Northwest coast probably did not appear in large numbers until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Trade and settlement initially led to the growth of totem pole carving, but governmental policies and practices of acculturation and assimilation sharply reduced totem pole production by the end of nineteenth century. Renewed interest from tourists, collectors, and scholars in the 1880s and 1890s helped document and collect the remaining totem poles, but nearly all totem pole making had ceased by 1901. Twentieth-century revivals of the craft, additional research, and continued support from the public have helped establish new interest in this regional artistic tradition.
Stanley Park is a 1,001-acre (405-hectare) public park that borders the downtown of Vancouver and is almost entirely surrounded by waters of Vancouver Harbour and English Bay. The park has a long history and was one of the first areas to be explored in the city. The land was originally used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years before British Columbia was colonized by the British during the 1858 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. For many years after colonization, the future park with its abundant resources would also be home to nonaboriginal settlers. The land was later turned into Vancouver’s first park when the city incorporated in 1886. It was named after Lord Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, a British politician who had recently been appointed governor general.
Unlike other large urban parks, Stanley Park is not the creation of a landscape architect, but rather the evolution of a forest and urban space over many years. Most of the manmade structures present in the park were built between 1911 and 1937 under the influence of then superintendent W.S. Rawlings. Additional attractions, such as a polar bear exhibit, aquarium, and miniature train, were added in the post-war period.
Much of the park remains as densely forested as it was in the late 1800s, with about a half million trees, some of which stand as tall as 249 feet (76 meters) and are up to hundreds of years old. Thousands of trees were lost (and many replanted) after three major windstorms that took place in the past 100 years, the last in 2006.
Significant effort was put into constructing the near-century-old Vancouver Seawall, which can draw thousands of residents and visitors to the park every day. The park also features forest trails, beaches, lakes, children’s play areas, and the Vancouver Aquarium, among many other attractions. On June 18, 2014, Stanley Park was named “top park in the entire world” by TripAdvisor.
The province’s most popular attraction is a group of ten totem poles at Brockton Point, the most easterly part of Stanley Park and home to a 100-year-old lighthouse. Four totem poles were originally brought from Alert Bay and placed at Lumbermen’s Arch in 1924. Some had been carved back in the late 1880s. More totem poles were purchased in the 1920s and 1930s, this time originating from the Queen Charlotte Islands and Rivers Inlet. All of the totem poles were moved to Brockton Point in 1962 to allow the construction of an overhead road at Lumberman’s Arch. Many of them have been replaced with replicas, with the originals now kept in museums for preservation. The most recent addition, erected in 2009, was carved by a member of the Squamish Nation whose mother was born in Stanley Park.