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Discovering Totem Poles: A Traveller’s Guide

By Aldona Jonatis

Review By Alan Hoover

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 180 Winter 2013-2014  | p. 170-171

This well-illustrated and modest in size guidebook presents totem poles that a tourist could see on a trip from Seattle, Washington, to Juneau, Alaska. The focus in not on totem poles as art objects displaying carved crest figures, but as objects that reference an interchange between Indigenous people and the invading colonizers. Jonaitis argues that her book is distinguished from the extensive literature on totem poles because she does not confine herself to a discussion of aesthetics and iconography but presents information that places poles in a “broader social, cultural” context. She begins her discussions in Seattle by looking at three poles that were stolen by whites from supposedly abandoned villages. Two of the poles have since been returned from the Burke Museum under the aegis of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed by the American Congress in 1990.


An interesting example drawn from the upper Skeena River involves the late anthropologist Wilson Duff and the people of Gitanyow. In order to get the chiefs of Gitanyow, formerly known as Kitwancool, to permit their totem poles to leave the village for preservation, the museum in Victoria carved replicas of each pole removed and returned them to be erected in Gitanyow. But the unique aspect of the agreement was that the Gitanyow required the Province of British Columbia publish a book that recorded the histories, territories, and laws of the people and that the subsequent publication be made available to students and teachers at the University of British Columbia. The result was Duff’s book, Histories, Territories and Laws of the Kitwancool (1959, 1989).

Perhaps the most unusual pole included by Jonaitis in her tour of the coast is the Sitka Wellbriety pole carved by Tlingit carver Wayne Price. Wellbreity is a neologism combining parts of the words wellness and sobriety. It refers to a Native American recovery program that combines the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Native spirituality. It honours all people recovering from the ravages of addiction and abuse.

Although Jonaitis gives more emphasis to totem poles that document “intercultural” relationships, earlier publications have not completely ignored such poles. Viola Garfield and Lin A. Forest in The Wolf and the Raven: Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska (1948) discuss the history of the two Tlingit poles that commemorate events involving the US revenue cutter Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward. George MacDonald commented in Haida Monumental Art (1983) on two carved figures atop the front corner posts of a house in Skidegate. They represent Judge Pemberton of the Victoria Police Court and George Smith, the Victoria city clerk. They were placed there in the 1870s to ridicule them for their part in the jailing of a chief from this house.

Jonaitis recognizes that totem poles in a variety of forms predate European contact, but then claims that “these earliest poles had a distribution limited to the Tsimshian and Haida” (ix). Ignoring the house posts drawn by John Webber in 1778 at Yuquot (Friendly Cove) is a curious omission for someone who has published on the famous whaling shrine at the same location. Jonaitis must have meant freestanding memorial or house frontal poles.

Jonaitis’ book is an excellent guide to totem poles in museums, an airport, a ferry terminal, and various public outdoor and indoor locations in Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, Duncan, Alert Bay, Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Juneau. By including the Wellbreity pole that references the great harm that accompanied colonization, and the Wooshkeetan pole in Juneau, that documents egregious bad behaviour by the agents of the colonial state, Jonaitis gives the reader a fresh understanding of totem poles as social documents.

Discovering Totem Poles: A Traveller’s Guide
By Aldona Jonaitis 
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2012. 112 pp, $19.95 pb