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People & Culture

Q&A with a totem pole carver

Meet the Haida carver working on the first totem pole to be raised in Gwaii Haanas, B.C. in more than a century

  • Jun 30, 2013
  • 431 words
  • 2 minutes
Jaalen Edenshaw works on the new totem pole Expand Image

It’s nearly 13 metres high, carved from a single red cedar tree and, until this August, the likes of it have not been raised for more than a century in Gwaii Haanas, a 5,000-square-kilometre protected area encompassing the southernmost portion of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia.

The new totem pole, known as the Gwaii Haanas legacy pole, honours the 20th anniversary of the agreement between the Haida Nation and the federal government to jointly manage Gwaii Haanas.

With less than two months to go before the new pole is raised on Lyell Island on Aug. 15, Jaalen Edenshaw, the Haida carver who’s been crafting it, spoke to Canadian Geographic about his work.

Canadian Geographic: What does this pole mean to the Haida Nation?

Jaalen Edenshaw: It’s our way of paying respect to those who joined the Lyell Island blockade in 1985. [The blockade eventually led to the Gwaii Haanas Agreement.] They stood against the logging companies that were devastating the region. It was done in a peaceful way, got results and was a very important moment in our history.

CG: What are the main features of the pole?

JE: Gwaii Haanas is the only area in the world that’s protected from ocean floor to mountaintop, and that influenced my design. At the bottom, there’s a sculpin [a bottom-feeding fish], and at the top, an eagle. The main feature is a group of five people standing together to represent the strength of the Lyell Island blockade.

CG: How long have you been working on it?

JE: More than a year’s worth of hours. I work with an assistant and we carve eight hours a day, five to six days a week. My brother is now helping us so we can finish it for August.

CG: What steps are taken when carving a totem pole?

JE: I went into the woods and found a nice 500-year-old cedar. A tree will look perfect when it’s standing, but sometimes you discover problems after you’ve cut it down. This one had rot throughout its entire length, so I had to hollow it out. Then I milled it down, laid out the design, drew a scaled version and started carving it in blocks. From there you refine.

CG: Why did you want to be involved with this project?

JE: It was a great opportunity to carve something to go up on my own land. I’ve worked on many projects, but this one gave me a chance to help preserve our history.

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