It's dark and drizzling when I finally reach the village of Gitanyow, but the dull weather can't blunt the striking scene before me. Here, alongside the muddy main road, stand more than 20 weathered totem poles, the carved crests and lineage of families who have lived here for centuries. While it's impressive to see these stark sentinels in any setting – whether in a museum, art gallery or urban park – the chance to view the poles in situ, in the First Nations community where they belong, is both wonderful and humbling.
And in this isolated Gitksan village, in northern British Columbia, I'm among some of the oldest standing poles in the world.
"This one is from 1760, this 1880, and 1910," says hereditary chief and local museum curator Deborah Good, as we walk among the remains of the weathered wooden figures, many which had been left to rot on the ground before this small museum was opened in 2008.
While Terrace, with its abundance of community galleries, carving sheds and museums, is the best place to explore the First Nations' carving tradition, it's here in Gitanyow (a.k.a. Kitwancool) and neighbouring Kispiox, that Canadian artist Emily Carr came to paint the totem poles of the northwest coastal people nearly a century ago. She saw the faces of the wolf, the frog and mountain eagle entangled in the encroaching temperate rain forest, and depicted many poles in her art, including the oldest Hole-in-Ice (or Hole-in-Sky) pole, standing in this spot for more than 140 years.
"She spent some time with my great grandparents, in 1928," says Good, pointing out the corner of the museum dedicated to Carr and the whimsical frogs – the crest of the local Frog Clan – encircling a ragged segment of one of the oldest poles.
The row of traditional longhouses that Carr saw, framing this forest of towering carved cedars in Gitanyow, has been replaced by a motley collection of 20th-century bungalows, but it's still an iconic spot to see this ancient art form.
"These poles are land and property deeds – the poles tell the story of where the people originated from, and how the land was given," Good explains. In the collecting frenzy of the 1800s, Gitksan poles were taken to museums in Vancouver, Ottawa, Boston and Philadelphia, she says, but somehow these remained untouched.
And somehow, in small pockets of the province – like here along the interior reaches of the Skeena and Nass Rivers – the tradition of carving survived, despite nearly a century of suppression. In 1884, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald banned the potlatch feasts and dances, the centre of the coastal peoples' unique social and legal system. Many poles were removed, toppled, even burned, and the skill of carving such ceremonial articles all but disappeared. By 1951, when the ban on the potlatch was finally lifted, only a few carvers remained.
Survival and revival The artists we know today – Mungo Martin, Bill Reid, Freda Diesing – had to comb the world's museums to learn about their ancestral crests and carving styles. But thanks to these stalwarts, and their apprentices, West Coast Native art and culture is again alive in towns and villages from Haida Gwaii to Prince Rupert and Hazelton. You will still see old poles – and contemporary poles – standing in communities like Kitselas, New Aiyansh, Canyon City and Kitsumkalum not as museum pieces, but to tell clan stories, claim property rights and mark local events as they have for centuries.
At the 'Ksan Historical Village near Hazelton, high above the banks of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers, there are several reconstructed buildings where young guides describe 1870s aboriginal life inside smoky cedar long houses. There's a forest of poles here, too – many carved by the generation of artists who helped resurrect the art form in the 1960s and '70s.
Historians believe the first free-standing poles were raised by inland Tsimshian, Gitksan and Nisga'a families in the area around Terrace. So it's not surprising that this is where the art of carving is finding new acolytes.
The next generation At the Northwest Community College, Latham Mack sits behind his drafting table, pencil poised over a drawing of a stylized bear, the kind that may some day wrap around the surface of a bentwood box.
The 23-year-old artist is one of 24 students at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, the only accredited coastal First Nations fine arts program in Canada. Students learn the fundamentals of designing with the traditional ovoid shapes, how to make tools and develop basic carving skills, under the hands-on tutelage of artists Stan Bevan and Ken McNeil, and master carver Dempsey Bob.
Along with two of the other students here, Mack has just won an important scholarship: His carved Thunder mask will be displayed at Vancouver's international airport, part of the impressive collection of First Nations art that welcomes travellers.
While the Diesing school only opened in 2006, graduates are already mentoring others and creating new works. Visitors will see a flurry of building and carving activity in the area – from the new crest poles and painted longhouses at the Kitselas Canyon historic site, to a Nisga'a project to carve four massive canoes, and a spectacular longhouse under construction at NWCC.
In the Wilp Simgan carving space below the historic George Little house in Terrace, you'll find artists like Todd Stephens and Henry Lincoln at work, carving boxes and creating paintings in bold traditional black and red. Four members of the school's first graduating class also carved two poles raised at the new Terrace Sportsplex, and recently opened their own gallery and studio space, The House of Carvers, where I found Henry Kelly and Geo (George) McKay at work.
"For me, carving is therapy – it gives me peace and serenity," explains McKay, a mask emerging from a piece of yellow cedar in his hands, the aroma of wood shavings in the air. "It's not about me, it's about promoting our people and our culture. It's like a poster reminding us where we are and where we are going, and it's an honour for me to be part of that."
Olympic flavour In one of the new longhouses at Kitselas Canyon, artist Dean Heron, another Freda Diesing School alumnus, is with his mentor, Stan Bevan, discussing the eagle, wolf, raven and killer whale clan crest poles they carved together, and the huge panels he is painting for the interior of the college's new longhouse. Heron's art was selected by the Vancouver Olympic Committee for the Cypress Mountain Olympic venue. His massive installation – painted across 20 canvases and representing a huge snowboard decorated with historic paddle designs – will be a permanent fixture at the ski resort which hosts 2010 Olympic freestyle and snowboard events.
In fact, First Nations art will be prominent in Olympic venues around the province, with 90 aboriginal artists commissioned by VANOC to create new artworks for display.
Visitors to Vancouver can't help but be impressed by the aboriginal art aesthetic here – from the collection of First Nations public art at Vancouver's YVR to the totem poles of Stanley Park and the haunting imagery of Emily Carr's paintings hanging in the Vancouver Art Gallery. Coastal art seems ubiquitous, the stylized imagery borrowed by local fashion designers and jewellery makers, and seen on everything from logos and T-shirts to coffee mugs. But, despite its growing popularity and commercialization, it's the cultural and spiritual side of the art that matters in small Native communities such as Greenville (Laxgalts'ap).
Ancient tradition In this Nisga'a village near Terrace, internationally renowned master carver Alver Tait is overseeing a monumental carving project, fashioning a 40-foot red cedar log into a massive canoe. It's the first canoe to be created here in a century, one of four to be carved with the help of 20 local youth, in a project designed to help them reconnect with elders and reclaim their traditional culture.
Tait shows me a photograph of the harvesting ceremony – he's standing before a massive tree in the rain forest, wrapped in his traditional button blanket regalia. "When I harvest the trees, I thank the creator and talk to the tree – promise to make something beautiful of it, and not waste it," he says.
Though it's fascinating to see First Nations totems anywhere in the world, it's inspiring to visit communities like these, where the tradition of carving is being passed to a new generation.
"It's comforting to know you've accomplished so much," says the Nisga'a elder. "You're leading your nation out of the darkness and into the light."
Special to The Globe and Mail