The peoples of the Northwest Coast had house posts or totem poles whose design told the family’s story. This was a way to pass down information to future generations. The designs represent family crests or traditional symbols in Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw culture.
In the early 20th century, non-native communities started erecting totem poles in prominent locations to encourage visitors. Coast Salish master carver Simon Charlie’s Salish Bear pole was carved as a part of the BC Centennial initiative in 1966 called the “Route of the Totems,” created to celebrate Vancouver Island joining mainland British Columbia in 1866.
In 1986, Duncan was officially designated the City of Totems. The designs of the poles reflect peoples’ lives, businesses and families. The poles represent two cultures coming together.
The collection has grown from those original poles commissioned in the 1980s. In 2012, the City commissioned a new pole to celebrate the centennial of the City of Duncan, together with the new signage to complement its outdoor collection. The oral histories collected by Jane Mertz during this project have created access to the previously-untold stories of the artists and their families. The carvers’ cultural knowledge is now preserved and all of the information gathered during the project is housed in the Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives for future visitors and scholars.
Where the carver had passed away, the stories were shared by a family member. The signs installed at each totem pole tell the story of the pole from the carver’s perspective. Each carver had a specific reason for selecting the figures on the pole. The enhanced signage honours the carvers’ work. The artists who were able to participate in the Totem Interpretive Project all expressed their gratitude that their stories were being preserved as an integral part of the City’s extensive totem pole collection. The interpretive signs describe the many important local and world events depicted on the poles.
Cedar Tree and Uses
Known as the Mother Tree by Indigenous, the Western Red Cedar tree (Thuja plicata, Pacific Northwest, Cypress family) was used for all of the poles in this collection. Many artists spoke of a spiritual connection to the original tree. For thousands of years, cedar sustained the peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America by providing material for everyday items: ceremonial masks, medicine, transportation, housing, fishing nets, food bowls, clothing (hats, capes, diapers), firewood, storage boxes, and much more.
“When a great tree is chosen for a totem pole or a canoe, there are ceremonies to celebrate the rebirth of the tree into a new existence. These ceremonies reflect our understanding that there is a spiritual connection between man and tree, that we are all aspects of a greater whole, and that the apparent differences between flesh and wood are insignificant compared to the kinship between the spirit of the tree and the spirit of the carver.” (Richard Krentz, Interview, Nov 2012).