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Features / September 28, 2012

In Victoria, the Rebirth of a Totem Pole

Earlier this month, hundreds of British Columbians gathered in Victoria to celebrate the rebirth of a significant piece of First Nations art: Mungo Martin’s totem pole Hosaqami, originally created in 1959. Though modern technology has brought much to bear on the craft of totem-pole-making since Martin’s time, there are many vital elements that remain the same—not the least of which is a strong sense of honour, tradition and spirit. Here is a look at how the process unfolded.

April: A Blessing to Begin

On an overcast day at the end of April, the sound of drumming from the 1870s stables below Government House in Victoria announces a First Nations ceremony: the blessing of a totem pole. Chief Tony Hunt, carver of some 100 poles in his 71 years, is wearing his chief’s headdress and a Chilkat blanket. Dancers in headdresses or button blankets are introduced. One them brushes the huge log waiting in the carving shed—a repurposed military tent—with cedar branches.

Hunt is about to engage in a meaningful, months-long exercise: replicating a pole he carved with his adoptive grandfather, Mungo Martin. Called Hosaqami—one translation of this phrase being “You, the face of authority”—the pole was commissioned from Martin in 1959 as a gift from the Royal Canadian Navy to the Royal Navy. Hunt, then an apprentice carver, says he was assigned the trickiest parts of the nine-metre pole to execute. “My history as an artist starts with that pole,” he says.

Totem poles have a lifespan too. The original Hosaqami lies outside the carving shed, paint chipping off, beak and whale’s tail missing, visibly deteriorating. It was erected on the British naval base at Whale Island, Portsmouth, where it was displayed until the late 1980s. The base was decommissioned, the pole fell down face-first in a storm and Hosaqami came back to Victoria after a Metis naval officer at CFB Esquimalt arranged for its transfer. At the base in Canada, it lay and rotted further—and is now beyond repair.

Lieutenant Governor Steven Point, a provincial judge from Chilliwack, is of Sto:lo descent. When he heard that Hosaqami lay mouldering at CFB Esquimalt, he says, “it was like finding an Emily Carr in your basement.” So Point proposed that Hosaqami be reproduced and erected in front of Government House in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

Point’s commissioning of the new Hosaqami from Tony Hunt is an extension of the collaboration that the two have undertaken at Government House. In many ways, Point has become Hunt’s latest student, learning from him as they’ve completed two Salish canoes, one of which now sits in the rotunda at the BC legislature. The Government House Foundation is helping to fund the new Hosaqami project to the tune of $40,000, with the foundation and other organizations also providing in-kind support.

The log that Western Forest Products donated for the project, for instance, is huge—long enough so that a thick end of it is sawed off and will later be wedged in half for use as a smaller pole and a short canoe. Hunt picked this behemoth red cedar, about 500 years old, from two set aside for totem poles in the WFP yard at Port McNeill on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Hunt’s home village of Fort Rupert (Tsaxis) is just a few kilometres down the highway. (In earlier days, totem-pole carvers would have gone into the woods to find a tree that stood tall, nicely rounded and straight enough without many visible knots. The trunk would have been wedged at the base and a fire started to eat it out for felling.)

“First it was a tree, then a log, now we’re giving it a new life,” says Hunt.

May, June and July: The Forms Take Shape

Traditionally, the first cuts in the totem-pole process were made with a crosscut saw. In the days following April’s blessing, the log is stripped of its bark and Greg Ottenbrite, a frequent collaborator of Hunt’s, applies himself with chainsaws, electric planers and axes to cut it down in girth (by more than a third) and prepare the log for carving. With each peel, the wet wood changes from rosy to yellow-white as it is exposed to the air.

By the middle of June, the carving is well underway. The left-handed Hunt takes a thick marker and describes the design in big, free-hand motions, outlining the three figures: the Kulus, a relative of the mythic Thunderbird, at the top; the killer whale upside down in the middle, its jaws opening upon the figure beneath; and the chief, at the bottom, clasping a talking stick to represent the navy. The crests are the property of the Hunt family, handed down from Mungo Martin, who was the hereditary chief in Fort Rupert, to Tony, designated from birth as the next chief.

Hunt acknowledges that coming back to Hosaqami is an emotional experience, recalling his youth and his apprenticeship to a much-revered artist. Born in the hospital in Alert Bay, across the water from Fort Rupert, Hunt didn’t go to residential school. “My mother broke the system,” he says. He went on a bus to elementary school in Port Hardy. Speaking almost no English, he was the only native pupil in his class. His first-grade teacher kept the drawings he’d made in school. In 1950, at age 9, Tony Hunt came to Victoria to live in the James Bay area of town with Mungo and his wife Abaya.

Even then, young Tony understood his lineage. He is the great-grandson of Robert Hunt, a Hudson’s Bay Company factor who married a high-ranking Tlingit woman, Mary Ebbetts. Their son George Hunt was the renowned interpreter who worked with Franz Boas translating for him from Kwak’wala to English, as the German-American anthropologist chronicled KwaGulth customs and societies in the late 1800s.

A totem pole displays an artistic heritage. In the same way that a ballet dancer reveals her training in her form, a carver is identified by the artist he trained with. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Mungo Martin, trained by his stepfather Charlie James, was, Hunt says, the only artist left who worked in the southern KwaGulth style, which is identifiable by its lack of formlines. By the 1940s, he explains, the culture of the Haida and other northern tribes had few (if any) practitioners. In many ways, Martin helped train others in their own traditions—notably, it’s said, Bill Reid, who worked with Martin in 1957 to carve a replica of a Haida pole.

As the work advances on Hosaqami, Tony directs and draws with his markers to show where cuts must be made. One day, Tony’s son-in-law Rodney has the chainsaw in hand, delineating the Kulus’s wings. The supernatural, half-human bird signifies strength in his power to raise house beams. His sharp, curved beak is one of the hardest parts of the pole to execute. If you make too deep a cut, Tony laughs, “then it’s a raven.”

The pole has been rolled on its side. It’s levered and wedged in such a way that two men can roll over the huge log. When Hunt wields a chainsaw, it’s an extension of his drawing arm. He eyes both sides of the pole to get the duplication exactly right and pays special attention to the sweeping curves of a cheek or a beak. The wood must yield, yet in the shapes of the grain of the red cedar, you can see the inspiration for the U-shapes that are the basis for KwaGulth design.

Hunt’s tools—handmade knives with curved or straight blades and carved handles—are arranged on a table in the shed. Most Hunt made himself. There’s a small axe that has been in use for about 40 years, and stone hammer that fits in the palm and is used with a chisel. As Tony tells it, when his grandfather was dying he instructed his tools to be wrapped and set aside for Tony. His grandson, out of respect and grief at his loss, has kept them locked up in a wooden box to this day.

One day in late June, the Lieutenant Governor, in T-shirt, shorts and running shoes, is in the carving shed working on the Kulus’s head. Hunt returns from an errand and picks up a curved-bladed knife. “What’s this?” he asks. Point looks sheepish. “Mungo always said, never pick up a tool until you need to use it.” As the work progresses, Point helps define the ears and paints the Kulus’s wing.

By July, Tony Hunt Jr., a student of his father’s but an established artist too, is working daily, chiselling and doing the finer work. Just as his father was delegated to carve out the hole in the whale’s folded-over tail, so will Tony Jr. execute this difficult part of the pole. He works with a sure hand, shaping the curves, but says, “I’m always learning.”

As Tony Jr. carves out the chief’s head and his pageboy hair, his father recalls his own teenage years working with Mungo Martin. While others were out playing in James Bay, Tony would go to the carving shed after school. He would complain about all the finer work he had to do, such as carving rings for the eyes—very time-consuming work. “Why do I have to do this?” he’d ask. “Because you can and you must” was Mungo’s reply, and it told Hunt he was doing a good job.

While all this work unfolds over the summer, the old Hosaqami begins sprouting a blackberry vine, truly going back to the earth.

September: A Totem Stands Tall

In the first week of September, it is time for painting. Hunt has enlisted some 40 people to come in shifts to apply paint to the pole. He uses acrylics now, but in the days when he apprenticed to Mungo, they used oil-based paints. In the 1950s, BAPCO, the British American Paint Company located near Victoria’s Inner Harbour, sent a representative around to get Martin’s advice on totem-pole colours. BAPCO’s Totem Pole Red and Totem Pole Blue were the result, along with a black hue and two kinds of yellow that also went into production.

It’s a party on September 8 when 500 people arrive on a sunny Saturday to see the pole raised. More speeches and more drumming resound as a procession winds down a path to the spot in front of Government House where Hosaqami will stand facing the Salish Sea beyond the stone edifice. More than a dozen volunteers are pulling on the symbolic four ropes that gradually elevate the pole to perpendicular. The Lieutenant Governor, in naval uniform, enjoins children in the crowd to help pull on the ropes, and Hosaqami slowly rises. A painted portrait of Mungo Martin sits on display not far from the replica pole he carved with his grandson more than 50 years ago. Tradition has been served.