J’net Ayayqwayaksheelth, indigenous outreach and learning co-ordinator with the Royal Ontario Museum, stands in front of one of the four totem poles, which were purchased and transported from British Columbia under the instruction of Charles Currelly, the ROM’s first director, in the 1920s.
Work of indigenous builders
lives on in ROM totem poles
Visitors to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) often wonder how its four famous totem poles were installed inside the intricate stairways of the building. The answer is simple — the building was built around the poles, a validation of their value to the museum.
The totem poles were hand-carved from western red cedar by the Nisga'a and Haida people of British Columbia's coast.
Among the ROM's most treasured artifacts, the poles are treated with reverence.
The poles were carved horizontally employing an adz - an axe-like tool used to dress timber. Carving tools for intricate work were made with blades from material such as jade, flint, metal, crystal or durable ocean mussel shells. Paints made from natural materials would then be applied to the carved surface. The base of a finished pole would be buried underground and the pole would then be erected with the use of cedar ropes.
A more recent revival of potlatch ceremonies has also accompanied a renewed interest in carving.
"A few years ago I was honoured to see a totem pole presented at a memorial potlatch for George Watts in Port Alberni," says J’net Ayayqwayaksheelth. "It was a ceremony that hadn't been performed in 100 years. It was one of the coolest things I've seen."
However, Ayayqwayaksheelth notes indigenous people have mixed feelings about preserving the poles. Some accept the notion that individual works of art will disintegrate and return to nature — it's the artistic tradition and the reproduction of the art form that many want to see kept alive.
"On the other hand, museums have played an important role in preserving objects for the unborn, celebrating the work of the ancestors that came from living cultures and carrying the stories and knowledge forward," she says. "It talks about the resilience of those cultures. Carving masters are now incorporating what they've learned from these exhibits."