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The Haida Totem Pole: A First Nations Treasure in Oxford

The second article in our short series delving into the background of items in the ...

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19th CenturyArts & CultureMuseums & ExhibitionsOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

The Haida Totem Pole: A First Nations Treasure in Oxford

The second article in our short series delving into the background of items in the ...

return to all posts

19th CenturyArts & CultureMuseums & ExhibitionsOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

The second article in our short series delving into the background of items in the Pitt Rivers Museum features the famous Haida totem pole, a favourite of artists, anthropologists, and visitors alike. Dan P. sets it in the context of other objects created by the Haida people of Canada, the legacy of colonialism, and the Haida’s current relationship with the museum.

Introduction

For new visitors entering the Pitt Rivers Museum, the sheer concentration and diversity of the displays can dazzle the mind and make it difficult for any particular object to stand out. Because of this, many visitors take a while to notice the Haida totem pole, despite the fact that this eleven-metre-high totem is the tallest permanent exhibit of any museum or gallery in Oxford.[1]

Carved from a cedar tree that is over 600 years old, the totem was erected sometime around 1878-1879 to celebrate the adoption of a young girl by a Haida chief.[2] The animals, people, and beings carved into the trunk are not just decorative, but represent legends from Haida mythology. Such monuments are a staple of Haida society, being used to commemorate important events.

Collage of two pictures showing different views of an indigenous totem pole inside a museum.
The Star House totem pole in the Pitt Rivers Museum (accession number 1901.39.1)

The Haida people and their history

The Haida are a nation of Native Americans (known in Canada as First Nations) who live on the Haida Gwaii archipelago, located off the Pacific coast of Canada. Haida Gwaii was formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, a name forced on the Haida by European settlers. The first Haida settled on the island as early as 13,000 years ago, making them one of the oldest surviving civilisations in the world. Their society is split into two clans, the Eagle and the Raven, with the Raven clan carving the totem pole displayed in the Pitt Rivers.

The events commemorated by Haida totem poles include adoptions, births, and deaths, and in the last of these cases the carvings could be designed to hold large bentwood coffins.[3] Today the Haida continue to raise totem poles. The totems, among many other Haida works, are also used in an important ceremony called a potlatch (common to many Native American cultures in the USA and Canada) where people gather to exchange gifts.

Map of the western coast of Canada showing islands, with one circled in red.
A Map of western Canada with the Haida Gwaii archipelago circled in red. Created by Wikimedia user Hanhil and edited by article author. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Disaster and oppression strikes the Haida

The latter half of the 1800s was considered a golden age of Haida art, as trade with Europeans gave the Haida access to new tools and materials. However, during this time disaster struck the Haida when smallpox decimated the island, contributing to the loss of over 95% of the Haida population.[4] Then in 1884 the Canadian government revised the Indian Act, outlawing Haida cultural activities such as the potlatch. This was coincidentally the same year the Pitt Rivers Museum was founded.

Glass cases showing ethnographic collections.
A collage of displays in the Pitt Rivers museum which heavily feature Haida artifacts. Some were collected by General Augustus Pitt Rivers himself, although he died in 1900 before the totem was erected in the museum.

The Canadian government begun a cultural genocide of Haida society, looting their artefacts and imprisoning Haida who took part in potlatches, forcing much of their culture to go underground. During this period the Canadian government also begun kidnapping First Nation children, sending them to “residential schools” where many were beaten, starved, raped, and killed by Christian religious authorities. The Europeans who committed the above atrocities did so in an attempt to spread both Christianity and capitalism. Christian missionaries also falsely believed that Haida totem poles were objects of worship, and pressured the Haida to stop erecting new ones and to tear down existing ones.[5]

Colourful wooden carved chest and mask, the latter showing a combination of human and animal form.
A Haida transformation mask (1891.49.8) above a master crafted Haida treasure chest (1884.57.25). Both items sit in a Pitt Rivers display case behind the Haida totem pole.

The totem comes to Oxford

It was one of these Christian missionaries, the Reverend Charles Harrison, who in 1899 contacted a professor at the Pitt Rivers about the possibility of acquiring a Haida totem pole for the museum. The totem pole that they chose was connected to a Haida building known as Star House. The Star House totem pole was cut down in 1900 and erected in the Pitt Rivers in 1901.[6]

An archival black and white photograph showing totem poles in a village.
A museum display in the Pitt Rivers featuring a photograph of Star House, the original location of the museum’s Haida totem pole. The photograph is dated to 1882.

Although the Star House totem pole is the most famous Haida item in the museum and a favourite of regular museum goers, the Pitt Rivers holds over 300 Haida objects, the majority of which are not on display. While the Star House pole is located on the north side of the museum, and one can also find displays with Haida items in the south-west corners of both the ground and 1st floors, and see Haida masks in the south-east area of the ground floor.

The design and meaning of the totem

The Star House totem can be split into four separate sections, each representing a different aspect of Haida religious and cultural beliefs.

The three watchmen

Watchmen can be found on almost all Haida totem poles and are most often located at the very top. They face the ocean and symbolically watch for incoming visitors. Above their hats are rings which represent the potlatches hosted by the totem’s owner.

Explanation image showing a totem divided into sections based on the elements depicted
The bear, frog, and bear cub

This section is the least understood and the exact meaning has been lost to history. However it is believed to relate to the story of the Bear Mother, which is discussed below. Although there are frogs on Haida Gwaii, the only indigenous amphibian on the archipelago is actually a toad.[7]

The bear holding a human with two bear cubs

This section of the totem depicts the Bear Mother story. This story has many versions, but they all feature a young Haida girl who is assaulted by a bear and forced by a society of sentient talking bears to give birth to two half-bear half-human children. In some versions of the story she is rescued by her brothers who go on a mission to save her, whereas in other versions the girl’s father is convinced not to harm bears after learning his grandchildren are human-bear hybrids.

Raven with a human holding an unknown animal

It is believed by experts that the raven represents a clan crest owned by Anetlas, the chief who commissioned this totem pole and whose clan had the rights to use the raven as an emblem. An 1883 annotated drawing of the totem in its original location says the human is actually the raven in disguise, and in his human form he holds a magical salmon called Taia. The salmon Taia bites the heart of the raven and becomes a raven too.

The British boy and the watchmen rings

An interesting anecdote shared by museum staff convinced some Haida that the totem possessed supernatural properties. In the late 1990s an artist and former president of the Haida Nation called Guujaaw visited the Pitt Rivers and spoke with curators. The staff told a story about a young British boy, who could not have known the Star House pole’s history, asking why the pole was missing several rings.

Two photographs showing the front and back of the top of the totem pole, highlighting three watchmen figures.
Two photographs showing the front and back of the three watchmen, with the rings, hat, and heads of the watchmen labelled. Note how the trunk is hollow to make moving the totem easier.

The boy was referring to the Skil, also known as potlatch rings, located above the hats of the watchmen at the very top of the totem. Originally there were nine rings, however when the totem was put in the Pitt Rivers there were only four remaining. These rings symbolise the number of potlatches hosted by the totem’s owner, but it is unknown why so many rings were removed from the Star House totem. Nika Collison, a Haida advisor to the Pitt Rivers, says that Haida who believe in reincarnation and learnt of the story had begun to believe that the young British boy represents a spiritual connection between himself and the people of Star House.[8]

On a final note, for those who are interested in the history of the Haida and the Pitt Rivers then a timeline of important events has been included below.

Important events in Haida-Oxford relations.

A museum display of a photograph of a man in a costume, wearing a bird mask, surrounded by other people in costumes.
A museum display featuring the 2009 Haida visit to Oxford.

1901: The Haida totem pole (Star House pole) is first displayed in the Pitt Rivers.

1998: A Haida delegation visits the Pitt Rivers to request the return of Haida ancestral remains.

2006: Pitt Rivers curator Laura Peers travels to Haida Gwaii to strengthen ties and discuss access to the museum collections.

2009: Twenty-one Haida delegates spend several weeks in Oxford to work with all 301 Haida objects in the Pitt Rivers.

2010: Ancestral remains of Haida kept in the Pitt Rivers are repatriated and given a proper burial.

2015: Haida artists Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw use museum objects to replicate designs for educational use in Haida Gwaii. These artists were descendants of Haida artist Charles Edenshaw who created a notable transformation mask in the museum.

Written by Dan P.


References

[1] Michael O’Hanlon, The Pitt Rivers Museum: A World Within (Scala Arts & Heritage 2014), p. 60.

[2] Laura Peers, Star House Pole (Pitt Rivers Museum, 2018), pp. 3-4.

[3] Peers, Star House Pole, p. 4.

[4] Peers, Star House Pole, p. 3.

[5] Pitt Rivers Museum Anthropology and World Archaeology: A Short Guide (Pitt Rivers Museum 2019), p. 24.

[6] Peers, Star House Pole, pp. 10-12.

[7] Kaitlyn Bailey, ‘Happy Mother’s Day from the Haida Gwaii toads: Volunteers track toads as part of citizen science project,’ Haida Gwaii Observer (10 May 2022) [Accessed 11 May 2022].

[8] Peers, Star House Pole, pp. 13-14.