Two poles, Two Stories, Two Carvers…One Cultural Destiny

Two poles, Two Stories, Two Carvers…One Cultural Destiny

👤Dennis Horwood 🕔Mar 29, 2013

Without a breath of wind, the low January clouds seemed skewered by the pointed treetops.  Beneath so close a ceiling, nothing moved or flew over the still surface of Minette Bay.  Ducks, geese, gulls, ravens and even Steller’s jays were grounded and silent.  My guest from eastern Canada was initially hopeful about seeing some new western birds.  Anticipation quickly changed to disappointment as she sensed few birds would be active in such gloomy conditions.

“Well, there isn’t much to be seen here, but would you like to see a Haisla totem pole?” I was trying to think of something to salvage the outing and make her trip memorable.

“Mmmm, I guess so.” Her reply was like the clouds—cool and dispirited.

The drive from Minette Bay to Kitamaat Village wasn’t long. Minutes later, we were trudging through the snow toward a thick copse of hemlock and cedar. My companion’s enthusiasm diminished as the trees did not appear to have any object, alive or otherwise, worth investigating.

Within a few moments of entering the grove, however, everything changed.  Almost before our eyes, the mist parted ever so slowly, allowing the evergreens to morph into a pole decorated by a series of beastly claws, teeth, tails and eyes.  They uniformly stared at the strangers beneath, daring them to tread further.

“Oh, my . . .” were the only words she could muster.

Even though I had visited this spot many times, the power of this sentinel still humbled me; my guest even more so. She stood silent in thought. What is the meaning of this pole? Where did it come from? And why is it here, so well hidden from casual passers-by?

As hoped, the afternoon ended on a high note, even though there were no new additions added to my friend’s avian checklist. All talk of birds migrated to questions about the pole. Had I known the carved monument would stir her so deeply and arouse such curiosity, I would have planned a visit to Sammy Robinson, the master carver and owner of Kwa-Kwalk, or Overland Traveler Pole.

Sammy’s home and workshop overlook the grove that surrounds the pole. He never hesitates to talk about it and keenly explains the complex interaction of real and mystical figures. After listening to Sammy’s story, one realizes the figures help to tell the tale of his family’s arrival long ago in Kitamaat Village.

The totem’s tale

Sammy’s lineage can be traced to the village of Colnthk in present-day Alaska. J’aese, chief of the powerful Beaver Clan, along with his four brothers and five sisters, lived in this village. It had been their ancestral home for generations. The sudden death of both their parents, however, left the children with unbearable grief. They could no longer remain where happy memories continually haunted them. A difficult decision was made to leave for a new land where they might put their bereavement behind them.

With canoes loaded and paddles in hand, the family headed south on an uncertain journey. Soon after leaving, sadness visited them again with the tragic drowning of Sta-owsk, one of the brothers. Determined his death was not a bad omen, they paddled on, reaching Kincolith and Port Simpson. After a much-needed rest, they turned their canoe against the current of the Skeena River, traveling inland to the native village of Kitsalas. Here, J’aese’s family destiny took a strange twist. He tamed and tethered a squirrel, which inexplicably led them all overland to the shores of Lakelse Lake. Unfortunately, the calm surface reminded them of their brother’s drowning and dead parents. As they again mourned their loved ones, supernatural forces intervened.

A gigantic beaver, Kwuth-heck, mysteriously appeared amidst a mass of foam on the water. Before they had time to contemplate its purpose, a halibut of unusual size and Kwa-Kwalk, a man-like being, floated past their encampment. After these and several other mystical beings vanished, the squirrel once again took the lead. The furry animal led the family through many valleys, eventually arriving at present-day Kitamaat Village. Sheltered within a Haisla house, they recounted their long travels and mysterious apparitions to their hosts. The Haisla chiefs were convinced this meant J’aese’s family should stay in this area, where halibut and beaver abound. J’aese warmly accepted the invitation.

He took all the creatures seen on the lake as family crests, incorporating them on a pole that he carved for himself. All these figures had special meaning, but he reserved the honour of top spot for his pet squirrel which led him to his new home and happiness.

Silent testament

Following J’aese’s arrival in Kitamaat, he learned about other Haisla who lived on a small spit at the mouth of the Kemano River. This village, although small and distant, had been occupied for centuries.

Unfortunately, more than 60 years ago, the Kemano people vacated their homes and resettled at Kitamaat. This forced movement was due to the influence of missionaries, European diseases and isolation.

They may have physically left, but ties to their historic village remain. Many graves, memorials and house foundations on the peninsula are a silent testament to those who lived next to the Kemano River. The river’s fishery fed every manner of bird and beast along with the human inhabitants.

In 1989, Robert Stewart, a descendent of the Kemano people, felt inspired to memorialize both the site and the rich river. He set about planning and carving a pole to remind everyone that the Haisla owned this river and its inherent wealth.

Before the year ended, a blessing and celebration of potlatch proportions took place in the village. In a packed community hall, the completed pole lay prone and mute, waiting patiently to be borne skyward. Few knew its design because a white sheet concealed it. After much ceremony, dancing and beating of drums, the pole’s covering was slowly drawn back. Two watchmen and an eagle appeared first, all with shimmering eyes. They had their first look at the world around them. The human faces were designed to be watchmen or Na Na Kila. They were destined to keep watch over the ancient ground, reminding visitors who is in authority.

The sheet withdrew further, uncovering a section devoid of effigies or patterns. This was followed by schools of salmon and eulachon along with figures of seal, sea lion and bear. Each carnivore grasped a fish in its jaws, testimony to a continuous cycle of life.

Today, Na Na Kila now stands at the edge of the Kemano spit, watching the many visitors motoring to and from the bay. Na Na Kila’s eyes continually watch over this sacred spot, keeping true to its purpose. Anyone looking closely might wonder why the pole’s base and top have such rich characters but the mid-section remains bare. Robert maintains that this was for effect—to remind people what has been lost. The eulachon fishery has collapsed, the salmon depleted and the first peoples moved away.

But Robert is also hopeful. He is certain Na Na Kila will witness the return of the eulachon to their historic numbers, the grease again being rendered in traditional quantities and the salmon filling the spawning beds. Robert and Na Na Kila share the same hope.

Viewing these poles

Kwa-Kwalk, Overland Traveler. Drive through Kitamaat Village to the marina at the south end. After parking, walk along an unmarked pathway leading to a thick grove of trees at the water’s edge. Kwa-Kwalk,is well hidden by this evergreen curtain.  

Na Na Kila, the Watchman. To reach Kemano, a boat ride is required via Kitimat Arm, Devastation and Gardner Canal. Allow a full day to make a round trip. A model of Na Na Kila can be viewed at the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.