Creating the Crossing Cultures and Healing totem pole at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria …
Totem poles are magical works of genius. I love the historical, black & white photos of Native houses lining a shoreline, each one fronted by a tall pole with carved orcas, bears, thunderbirds and mythical creatures telling profound stories. It was the heyday of totems.
In the late 1800s the art almost died out, however, as Indigenous people suffered under colonialism. In the 1900s and even into modern times totems were only sporadically carved. But in recent years, the creation of totems has made a resurgence.
In response to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission report, the BC Ministry of Health hired Steve Sxwithutxw (pronounced Swee-thult), Penelekat Nation, to help ensure Indigenous concerns were incorporated into the departments policies and operations. His recommendation to build a totem pole for the Ministry’s headquarters in Victoria was accepted, and quickly bloomed into a major project.
Three organizations played key roles: The Ministry of Health, which commissioned the pole; the Royal British Columbia Museum, which provided space where the public could observe the carving; and TimberWest, which donated the log.
Vital to success were master carvers Tom LaFortune and his younger brother Perry, of the Tsawout First Nation, who were nominated by the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, on whose traditional territory the museum and Ministry of Health building sit.
Tom’s portfolio includes masks, rattles, paddles, dishes, talking sticks and more than 30 totem poles, which can be found in collections all over the world.
Perry has been to Singapore to demonstrate carving, was head carver for a canoe carving project and created a talking stick that was presented to former USA President Bill Clinton.
Both brothers are in their 50s, have rough exteriors and are not shy about speaking their minds. Their quick smiles, however, show an underlying friendliness and a wry sense of humour.
On June 22, 2018, a 30-foot red cedar log arrived at Tom’s carving shed in Esquimalt. The 300-year old-growth log from south of Campbell River was cut to 25 feet, debarked, rounded and basic cuts made to produce the general totem shape. After five weeks, the partially carved 3,300-pound pole was transported to the Museum and placed near the entrance, where the public could watch for free, interact with the carvers and even try carving.
Over the next 15 weeks the pole took shape: a raven on top, then an owl and then a woman, all joined by a rope. Tom described the transformation …
“We take a dead log and bring it to life.”
Tom was proud this was the first Coast Salish pole in Victoria, and hopes the Museum will add one to their large collection of poles from elsewhere in the province.
The pole’s name, Crossing Cultures and Healing, was coined after the LaFortunes refused to include the word reconciliation. Tom was adamant, “Hell no, what the hell do we have to reconcile for?”
The pole is dedicated to the brothers’ mother, Georgine, and to all moms who survived residential school. The Raven is the bringer of good news. Although an Owl can look in all directions, here it peers into the future. Each figure holds a rope, which recalls how the Tsawout Nation survived the great flood by tying a rope to a tree on a hill.
The brothers made an initial sketch of the main figures with their heights (9, 8 and 8 feet). Thereafter they used no plan. A centre line was drawn along the log and some pencil sketches occasionally made. Details were addressed as they progressed; for example, empty spaces were filled with traditional shapes.
The brothers worked with more than 40 razor-sharp chisels, knives and adzes as well as calipers and a small electric chainsaw. Tom assured me that every single tool was used. At one point Tom cut his thumb, which appeared to need stitches. Tom, however, bound the wound with electrical tape and continued carving unperturbed.
The public loved the smell of freshly cut cedar, asked many questions and even tried carving. When asked if they used a machine to roll the log, Tom responded “We’ve got the strongest machine right here,” and he flexed his bicep.
In early October, 2018, after nearly four months, the pole was finished.
In mid-November, after Gateway Timberframe prepared the totem’s base, a lane of traffic was closed on the corner of Blanshard and Pandora, Victoria, and a large crane lifted the totem and lowered it onto a concrete-and-steel foundation.
A week later, a joyous celebration, similar to a potlatch, welcomed the Crossing Cultures and Healing totem. An emotional Tom said, “Making this totem came from the heart. It is important to me and to my people.”
Now the totem stands proudly on the busy intersection, symbolizing the healing between two cultures.