Exploring British Columbia’s Totem Poles and the Best Places to Find Them!

After spending a majority of the last 3.5 years living abroad, I absolutely love being back in British Columbia, my home province. Don’t get me wrong, I am forever planning new trips and dreaming of the unexplored. In the end though, BC is pretty great. Maybe I’m like, getting super mature, but I can’t help but feel pretty in love with this special part of the world.

Exploring my native province with a set of blogger’s eyes has actually made me appreciate it even more, especially the details! One of the most unique parts of British Columbia is not the spectacular scenery, the epic sushi, or the shocking amount of cyclists on city streets. No, the aspect of BC that has recently fascinated me are: THE TOTEM POLES!

Totem poles? Really Emily? I know, I have looked at them my whole life, and never really given them much thought. I even took a First Nations History class in high school, no big deal. But for some reason, maybe it’s that super maturity I spoke of earlier, I am only now paying attention! I am seeking out totem poles, learning more about their depth and relevance in West Coast Indigenous culture, and asking a few more questions than my 16 year old self never did. I have also been reading the complete collection of Emily Carr’s books, so there is that.

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S’gaang Gwaay Totem Pole, Haida Gwaii, Photo Credit Brett MacIntyre

Where does all of this totem pole curiosity lead a British Columbian travel blogger? Well, to search out the best places in British Columbia to see totem poles of course!

Now to disclaim right away, I have not been to all of the places I am going to discuss.  BC is really big. But because I have awesome friends and family, I got a little help from folks who have been to these amazing locales and who can definitely give us all the insider’s scoop! And who knows, maybe by putting my fascination for these places out into the universe, the travel gods will lead me to these totem poles in the future!

Totem Poles in the Royal BC Museum's Thunderbird Park, Victoria, BC
Totem Poles in the Royal BC Museum’s Thunderbird Park, Victoria, BC

Aboriginal Totem Poles in the Pacific Northwest

Totem poles have been an important part of Aboriginal culture in this part of the world for centuries. Found along the coast of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, totem poles are significant monuments to thriving Aboriginal heritage, beliefs, history, and current art expression.

Most totem poles are hand carved from western red cedar trees, the variation of cedar that was used by West Coast tribes for all kinds of creations: building of homes, clothing, tools, art, and even baby diapers! A totem pole is most frequently a freestanding, tall slender pole, carved out to depict multiple animals or humans, often painted vibrant colours (though not necessarily). The totem pole tells a story of the interaction between it’s depicted characters, and will often tell the tales of events, folklore, legends, and family lineages.

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Alert Bay Cemetery, British Columbia. Photo Credit Sue Kydd (aka Mom)

Different totem poles have different uses and symbolize different aspects of Aboriginal life. Some totem poles are actually mortuary boxes, wherein the ashes of the deceased are stored in the box at the top of the totem pole. Other poles are welcome poles, bringing visitors warmly into a village or long house. Alternatively, other poles serve true architectural values when they are built into the structures of a long house itself.

Totem poles are the largest and most public depictions of Aboriginal heritage. By telling stories of family, animals, legends, nature, people, politics, and daily life, are excellent artistic sources from which to learn about West Coast Aboriginal life.

Different Schools of Thought on Totems

Aboriginal tribes who create totem poles are the HaidaTlingitTsimshianKwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl), Nuxalk (Bella Coola), and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka). Different tribes and different artists will have their own style of creation, as well as different practices surrounding the poles. One aspect of the totem poles that deserves some mention is what happens to totem poles as they age. Clearly, being made of wood and living on the West Coast (aka a practical rainforest by the sea), the paint on the totems will fade and wood will decay. Often the older the totem the more decayed it will be, especially if the totem still stands in it’s original location. 

One school of thought is that aging totems should be reconstructed and refurbished. The opposing school of thought is that totems were made from the earth and should be let to return to the earth as their life cycles closes. There are strong feelings both ways, and I’m not weighing in! But it does raise the question of preservation. If we want to hold onto these pieces of history and art, museums are the best place for them. Though the fact that totem poles are meant to be naturally a part of the landscape, makes glassing them into museums kind of oxymoronic.

Oi, it’s all pretty complicated.

Where to Find Totem Poles in British Columbia

To shake off the complicated politics and ethics, let’s move on to where you can see totem poles, both far and wide, easily accessible and not at all easily accessible. Whether you have a couple of days in Vancouver or Victoria, or if you are up for some deep British Columbia exploration to see totem poles in their truly natural habitat, I (and my wonderful collaborators) have some ideas for you!

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Alert Bay, British Columbia. Photo Credit Sue Kydd (aka Mom)

Aboriginal Totems in Vancouver BC

Most visitors to BC will pass through Vancouver, and probably spend a day or two exploring this awesome city. There are so many things to do in Vancouver, but that is for a different post.

But in the case of totem pole tourism, there are three excellent sites to wet your appetite:

Stanley Park Totem Poles           

Stanley Park is one of Vancouver’s premiere tourist attractions. One of the largest urban parks in the world, Stanley Park is over 1000 acres and boasts all kinds of fun places to visit. Recently, Mom and I took a horse drawn carriage ride around the park, and one of the stops was at Brockton Point, home of nine totem poles as well as three red cedar welcoming portals.

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Stanley Park Brockton Point Totem Poles in Vancouver, British Columbia

This collection started in the 1920’s when four totem poles were brought to Vancouver from Alert Bay. The collection has been added to over the years with the most recent member joining in 2009. The variation of totem poles in Stanley Park is impressive, and if you only have a day to see some totems, this is a great tasting.

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Stanley Park Brockton Point Totem Poles, Vancouver BC

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park Totem Poles

Capliano Bridge is another massive Vancouver tourist attraction, but it’s not just the suspension bridge that gets attention these days. When Mom and I visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, we were temporarily derailed from our path to the bridge by a fabulous collection of totem poles clustered in the front part of the park.

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Capilano Suspension Bridge Park Totem Poles

Honoring the Kia’palano First Nations people who made their homes in this area, the park has a long house depiction as well as at least 10 different types of welcoming poles and totem poles.   Set in the beautiful lush forest of the Capilano Park, these totem poles, most of which are recent pieces with fairly fresh coats of paints, give and idea of what totems look like in the wild.

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Capilano Suspension Bridge Park Totems, North Vancouver BC

Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia

If you have a bit more time to venture out in Vancouver, a trip to the MOA at UBC will not disappoint. The MOA is not only located in a spectacular cliffside setting (and right about the nudie Wreck Beach if that’s your thing), but it boasts one of the finest collections of Aboriginal art in the world. So says their website anyways.

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Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, BC. Image via Flickr by Guilhem Vellut

The MOA definitely holds the largest collection of Bill Reid art (Bill Reid is an extremely famous Haida artist), and with both indoor and outdoors totems, a long house, and huge canoes, it’s claimed of being the finest may be legit.

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Totem Poles in Victoria BC

Moving over to Vancouver Island, we can find equally impressive collections of totem poles. Spending some time exploring Victoria will never lead you astray, but a few well intentioned trips to see the totem poles around town will get you away from the crazy tourist rush.

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Thunderbird Park with the Empress Hotel, Victoria BC

Thunderbird Park Royal British Columbia Museum

Staring close to the inner harbour, Thunderbird Park at the Royal BC Museum is a fantastic collection of different styles and ages of totem poles. Facing Douglas Street, on the North side of the museum grounds, Thunderbird Park was established in 1941 when poles from inside the museum were brought outside.   In 1952, totem pole carver extraordinaire Mungo Martin was brought on board to restore the poles, and then carve recreations of the originals in the onsite carving studio. The originals were then taken back inside to be preserved, while the recreations are what are seen outside at this time. All of the originals can be seen inside the museum.

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Thunderbird Park, Victoria, BC

Thunderbird Park is currently home to 11 totem poles and Wawditla long house, otherwise known as the Mungo Martin house. This long house is currently used as a meeting place for the local Coast Salish people.

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The Longhouse in Thunderbird Park, Victoria, BC

The Songhees Point Totem Poles

Across the Inner Harbour from the Legislature Buildings is Songhees Point. A small park here marks the start of the Songhees Walkway and also holds two lovely totem poles. Sitting right beside the ocean, these two complex totems sit against the rocky shoreline and appear to stand guard. The Songhees First Nations call this area home, and preserve their heritage to this land through the Songhees Wellness Centre.

The view from Songhees Point, looking back towards the Inner Harbour is a great one, and this spot also serves as an excellent place to watch the boats go in and out while enjoying a picnic (or a well disguised glass of wine).

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The Songhees Point Totem Poles. Image via Tourism Victoria

Beacon Hill Park Totem Pole

Once the tallest totem pole in the world, this 38.9 meter high totem was raised in 1956. This really super tall totem pole stands fairly lonely in the grassy meadow of Beacon Hill Park just west of Cook Street. But don’t feel too bad for it, this totem has one of the best views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in town.

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Once the World’s Tallest Totem, in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria BC. Image via Tourism Victoria

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Totem Poles in Duncan, British Columbia

Duncan is a small town about 75 minutes north of Victoria on Vancouver Island. It is known for two things: The largest hockey stick in the world and the Totem Tour.

Located on the ancestral lands of the Cowichan First Nation, Duncan calls itself the City of Totems and is one of the world’s largest collection of outdoor, publicly accessible totem poles.

Duncan Totem Poles via Flickr by Doug Hay

The city started this collection in 1985 as a way to attract visitors, as well as to celebrate the heritage of the Cowichan people and the relationship between the band and the city. With each new pole that is carved and raised, festivities abound, stories are told, dances are danced, and the community comes together.

There are currently 41 totems on the Duncan Totem Tour Walk, most of which are located within a three-block radius in Downtown Duncan. The most recent pole to join the collection was raised in 2015, though I’m sure with every passing year the collection will grow and the celebrations will follow.

Welcome to Duncan, City of Totems! Image via Flickr by Mark Woodbury

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Totem Poles in Alert Bay off Northern Vancouver Island

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Alert Bay Cemetery Totem Poles. Photo Credit Sue Kydd (aka Mom)

Alert Bay is known as being one of THE totem pole centres in BC. It is also pretty remote, but the length of the journey only indicates how extremely special Alert Bay is.

Full disclosure, I’ve never been to Alert Bay, but my mother has raved about her trip for years, so I’m allowing her to write a guest post.

Disclaimer!! I am not responsible for anything she might say…

Alert Bay is located on Cormorant Island off the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island. To get there you take a BC ferry from the town of Port McNeil: the ferry does a triangle route, first stopping at Sointula on Malcolm Island (itself a fascinating place, but that’s another story, maybe another post??) and then to Alert Bay, before returning to Port McNeil.

Alert Bay Cemetery totem poles in BC travel blog
Alert Bay Cemetery, BC. Photo Credit Sue Kydd (aka Mom)

The Village of Alert Bay is an amazing place for many reasons, but the Native Poles and carvings are unsurpassed. Just being in Alert Bay was an experience, and truly brings you the opportunity of seeing these works of art in their natural setting.

There are totem poles all around Alert Bay, but one of my favourite places was the cemetery, where there is a mix of old historic works, and newer modern ones. The cemetery is closed to the general public, but you can easily view the poles from outside the small fence, while respecting the local families. These poles overlook the water, and speak to the eternal circle of life.

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Alert Bay Cemetery, British Columbia. Photo Credit Sue Kydd (aka Mom)

The legendary Emily Carr painted some of her most famous pieces in Alert Bay over 100 years ago, and I felt as if I was walking in her footsteps as I stood riveted by the beauty of the poles. It made me truly appreciate the journey the young, solo woman made to this remote place, and the respect she gave to the local people.

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Umista Centre Totems in Alert Bay. Photo Credit Sue Kydd (aka Mom)

The U’Mista Centre is another location to see carvings and poles, and I highly recommend you visit, to see the display of Potlatch Items, and learn the cultural heritage of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw First Nation.

best places to see Aboriginal totems in BC
The Umista Centre in Alert Bay Photo Credit Sue Kydd (aka Mom)

Although Alert Bay is off the main tourist trail, I highly endorse a visit. Plan to spend a few days, meet nice folks, do a few hikes, go whale watching, watch the native dancers, and eat great seafood. But most of all, absorb the beauty of the native art and admire the skills of the carvers, both modern and historic.

Umista Centre Long House in Alert Bay British Columbia
Umista Centre Long House in Alert Bay British Columbia.  Photo Credit Sue Kydd (aka Mom)

Thanks Mom!

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Totem Poles in Prince Rupert British Columbia

Back to a place I have been, Prince Rupert!

Also off most tourist trails, Prince Rupert is literally the end of the road. Located on the North Coast of BC’s mainland, just south of the Alaskan Panhandle, Prince Rupert is known for having one of the highest yearly rainfall measurements in the world. The Twilight books could have been set here.

Despite the rain, Prince Rupert is an awesome little place, with all kinds of small town charm, epic West Coast scenery, and, you guessed it, totem poles!

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Totem pole at the Crest Hotel in Prince Rupert, BC, Photo credit Jackie and Doug Kydd

Prince Rupert sits on the ancestral land of the Tsimshian First Nation, but is within very proximity of the Haida, the Tlingit, and the Nisga’a regions as well.

I was lucky enough to live in Prince Rupert for two summers back in university (I worked in a fish plant!), staying with my Aunt Jacki and Uncle Doug. When I asked them if they had any photos of the many totem poles spotted around this small town, they went out and did a ‘Totem Pole Tour’. They’re the best!

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A recreated Chief’s Pole, the original sat in Skedans. Photo credit Jackie and Doug Kydd

Driving around town, Jacki and Doug easily spotted over 15 different totem poles, all within two kilometers of each other. Many are recreations of original poles that were carved and raised in Haida Gwaii, and few “need a haircut” as my aunt put it. Meaning the poles are become older, and they are starting to sprout some flora on top.

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Totem Pole leading to the Prince Rupert Museum. Photo credit Jackie and Doug Kydd

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Want more info on BC’s Totem Poles?

Discovering Totem Poles: A Traveler’s Guide

By Aldona Jonaitis

Totem Poles: An Illustrated Guide

By Marjorie M. Halpin

Totem Poles

By Pat Kramer

Find it on Amazon!

Find it on Amazon!   Find it on Amazon!

Totem Poles in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

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S’gaang Gwaay, an abandoned Haida village in Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii, formerly known by its colonial name ‘the Queen Charlotte Islands’, is one of the most spectacular, remote, rugged, and inspiring regions in British Columbia. Maybe in Canada, probably in all of the world.   Most people experience Haida Gwaii by flying in to fishing lodges, but that doesn’t really lead to a Haida Gwaii experience. Visitors can fly into Haida Gwaii from Vancouver, landing in either Masset or Sandspit. Alternatively, the year round BC Ferries route from Prince Rupert takes 8 hours and brings passengers and vehicles in Skidegate.

I have spent exactly 5 hours in Haida Gwaii, back during one of those summers I lived in Rupert. So while I have a sense of how awesome Haida Gwaii is, my tiny taste of it really wasn’t enough, and I am dying to go back.

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S’gaang Gwaay totem poles, Photo Credit Brett MacIntyre

To save us all from my ignorance, I called upon my friend from university, Brett, to fill in the gaps. Brett was quick to disclaim that he is not from Haida Gwaii himself, but that his grandfather was the last in his direct family to be born there. Meaning Brett is a member of the Haida nation and he has a ton of relatives in Skidegate and he goes there “an awful lot to visit”.

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S’gaang Gwaay totem. Photo Credit Brett MacIntyre

To hear straight from the expert, I’m just going to copy and paste exactly what he said in a text message:

Exploring Haida Gwaii’s Totem Poles

For starters, there are poles everywhere. A good place to start would be the Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay, just outside Skidegate. It’s a great museum! It has very old poles from some of the abandoned Haida villages inside and a collection of new family poles on the outside. Plus part of the building is a carving shed, so you can watch the artists work. They were actually just starting a new pole when I was there last week.

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Haida Heritage Centre in Kaay Llnagaay. Photo Credit Brett MacIntyre

Otherwise, Masset, which is the north end of the island, has a ton of really great poles. Skidegate does too, but Masset seems to have more for some reason.

Though, if you’re looking for a really, really cool experience, you can try to get a charter tour down to Gwaii Hanaas (the nature reserve in the South Island and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to one of the old abandoned villages. I’ve been to S’Gang Gwaay (also called Ninstints) and it was the coolest place ever!

Thanks Brett!

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Totem pole and bald eagles in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. Photo Credit Brett MacIntyre

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Aboriginal Totem Poles in British Columbia

This collection of places to see totems in BC is but a sampling of the thousands of poles standing along the West Coast today. Oregon and Washington visitors can seek out poles south of the border, while all along the coast you never know when you will find one.

The one thing that is for certain is that if you make it a mission to find totem poles in their original sites, you will find yourself in locations of epic proportions, surrounded by wilderness both rugged and beautiful, far away from any crowds. These sites will transport you back in time, to when BC was not a province but a homeland and the First Nations people of the West Coast travelled with the seasons. Which is a pretty amazing way to experience British Columbia if you ask me.

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Stanley Park Totem Pole. Image via Tourism Vancouver

A VERY special thank you to Sue Kydd, Jackie & Doug Kydd, and Brett MacIntyre for their contributions to this post.

Additionally, thanks to Tourism Vancouver, Tourism Victoria, and BC Ferries for making trips to Vancouver and Victoria attractions possible.

 

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Aboriginal Totem Poles are essential to the First Nations art and culture in British Columbia, Canada and seeking out the most fascinating totem poles will lead the BC visitor to experience this beautiful province in a truly unique way!

 

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