Parksville’s 51-year-old Kwakiutl bear totem pole had two possible futures when the City of Parksville inspected the 16-foot cedar log last summer — to be removed from its location in front of the Visitors’ Centre and restored, or allowed to decay back into nature.
In the end, First Nations carver Tanis (Simon James) decided to split the difference.
The pole, originally carved by Tanis’s stepfather, Jack James, was installed last week in the atrium of the Parksville Civic and Technology Centre. On one side it appears newly carved and painted, with a sleek, glossy look. But the opposite side reveals a weathered, aged and cracked pole, with faded paint.
“I wanted to let cedar tell its story,” Tanis said of the unique design of the pole. “No matter how old it gets or how long it lasts, it is destined to got back to the earth.
“We never listen to cedar’s side of the story. This pole is saying, ‘Let me go to where I’m destined to be.”
The Kwakiutl pole very nearly made that trip without the detour through city hall. Last year, after city council approved funding through a Canada 150 grant go toward possible restoration of the totem pole, Tanis was called upon to inspection it where it stood before the Visitors’ Centre at the south end of Parksville.
After determining the wood had been infiltrated by an unknown number of insects, Tanis suggested it be taken down and fumigated. It was initially housed in a building at the Parksville Museum, then moved to a Parksville Volunteer Fire Department storage unit.
“It was absolute core rot; there was a whole ecosystem living in that pole, and we couldn’t see it,” said Tanis, who noted that cedar rots from the inside out, and that some parts of the pole appeared to be held together by little more than its paint. “I thought, ‘This is hopeless; it can’t be done.”
The bottom section of the pole, made up of the bear’s body, was a total loss and had to be replicated. But as Tanis began to examine the various elements of the pole, he said they began to take shape as his various members of his family, which he said was fractured by the Indian Residental School system and, in some cases, addictive behavious.
“I decided, ‘I’m going to get my family back together,” said Tanis, who literally wrote the names of family members on each salvaged element of the orginal pole.
A vinegar and water solution was used to artifically age the new base and other parts of the “after” side of the totem pole, said Tanis.
Incorporating some of the damage to the original pole, Tanis completed a hole in the eye of the “Son of the Sun” character and perched a woodpecker in front of it. He also added a crow with a juvenile crow in a nest. Finally, he topped the right wing of the totem pole’s Thunderbird with a carved “trickster” raven, whose slightly cocked head appears to be looking down at visitors.
“Is it contemplating some mischief? I don’t know.” Tanis said with a smile.
The pole was orginally carved by Jack James, a Kwakwaka’wakw carver from Gilford Island, as part of a provincial government initiative in 1966 to celebrate the centennial of the colonies of Vancouver Island joining British Columbia. Under the initiative, 19 poles were created by 11 First Nations carvers and were spread across Vancouver Island in a welcoming tour of totem poles.
Parksville council contemplated using its Canada 150 funding to commission an entirely new pole by Tanis, who now lives in Campbell River. But it eventually opted against importing another Kwakwaka’wakw pole onto the traditional territory of the Coast Salish Nations.
Tanis previously restored Parksville’s Kwakiutl bear pole in 1992, in Alert Bay, and city communications director Deb Tardiff said he was the clear choice to restore the work of his stepfather. Tanis, in turn, was assisted in the family pole restoration by his own sons and a cousin.
“We wanted to recognize this in memory of Jack James,” said Tardiff, who said a blessing ceremony would be scheduled to officially welcome the totem pole to its new home.
When the cedar life-cycle concept was presented to council, it was approved unanimously.
“They loved it,” said Tardiff.