Vancouver Art in the Sixties

Totem Land

In the 1920s, when the “disappearance” of totem poles became a public concern, a Totem Pole Restoration project was financed by the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). A committee was struck with the DIA Superintendent as Chair, and Marius Barbeau, chief ethnologist of the National Museum as one of the committee members. They focused on the poles near the Upper Skeena River, the lands through which the railway ran. Subsequently, the first of seven poles were cut down and put in cement blocks along the railway to promote tourism. During Barbeau’s work on the Skeena, he invited various artists to paint a “dying” way of life. An exhibition in Ottawa of their paintings, Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern, was curated by Barbeau and Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery, in 1927.

The Queens totem pole loaded on to the Pacific Unity at Victoria on its voyage to England, 1958

The Queens totem pole loaded on to the “;Pacific Unity” at Victoria on its voyage to England, 1958

Three decades later, the 1950s tourism venture, “Totem Land,” (an organization to protect Indian Art and promote goodwill) and the 1966 “Route of the Totem,” poles erected along highways and at ferry terminals, and on-going totem pole restoration programs at the Royal British Columbia Museum and UBC Museum of Anthropology provided a renewed interest in poles. Despite the huge historical gap between these projects, the initiatives reveal a relationship between totem poles, tourism, Canadian nationalism and art. Against this more recent historical backdrop, Ellen Neel was named as ‘renowned for her totem poles’ in a display hosted by the Coqualeetza Fellowship Club at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1954. By 1955 Neel was known as the “the most famous totem carver on the west coast” according to a tribute to her after her untimely death in 1966. Taught from childhood to carve totem poles as a skill that would allow her to make a living and maintain cultural knowledge, she was propelled into a capitalist market that eventually took her to Vancouver, where she mentored her own family as she had been. Neel became known as a leader who advocated for women, and who “worked shoulder to shoulder with men,” not only as a carver, but as a business woman who embarked on many political and cultural ventures in Vancouver with civic, provincial, institutional and aboriginal leaders. However, her bold embrace of what was ‘modern’ in terms of business, politics and art in the 1940s and 1950s would lead to her exclusion from the 1960s discourse of tradition, aesthetics and connoisseurship in Northwest coast art.


Vancouver Parks Board approves constructing a Northwest Coast tourist "village" in Stanley Park in 1922. The board of the Art, Historical and Scientific Society (precursor to the Vancouver Museum) purchases four poles from the Kwakwaka'wakw in Alert Bay, including the "Wakius pole" to be installed in the model "village". Officials want to promote tourism and recreate elements of what they think is a dying culture. The Squamish Indian Council objects to the plan pointing out that such a village would not be indigenous to the Lower Mainland. It was never built, but the totem poles were installed in the park close to the concession stand at Lumbermen's Arch.


The Thunderbird Dynasty Pole, carved by Chief Joe Capilano of North Vancouver, is dedicated at Prospect Point. The pole commemorates the meeting of the Squamish people and Capt. George Vancouver (June 12, 1792) near the mouth of the Capilano River.


Totem poles were first erected in Thunderbird Park in Victoria, BC in 1940 as part of a conservation effort to preserve some of the region’s aboriginal art. The site was opened as Thunderbird Park in 1941. By 1951, many of the poles had greatly decayed, and in 1952 the Royal British Columbia Museum began a restoration program with Chief Mungo Martin as the head carver.


The Vancouver Parks Board approves the construction of a Northwest Coast tourist "village" in Stanley Park. The first four totem poles are purchased from the Kwakwaka'wakw nation in Alert Bay.


After Ellen Neel's husband Ted has a stroke, they convert their home on Powell Street in East Vancouver into a workshop so Ellen can support the family with her carving. That same year, she opens Totem Arts Studios at Ferguson Point in Stanley Park.


In the spring of 1948, the first formal exhibition of the work of Ellen Neel is shown at Brock Hall, University of British Columbia, under the sponsorship of BC Indian Arts and Welfare Society (BCIAWS). The President of UBC, Norman Mackenzie, purchases a totem pole by Neel during the conference at UBC’s Arcadia Camp. Later that year Ellen Neel and her family carve a sixteen foot totem pole as a gift to the Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia. The pole is presented to the University at half-time during a football game. Chief William Scow addresses the stadium during the presentation ceremony.


"Totem Land” is the brainchild of public relations man Harry Duker and Vancouver, Mayor Charley Thompson. "'Totem Land': an Organization to Protect Indian Art and to Promote Goodwill Among all Canadians is incorporated under the Society’s Act on Aug. 1, 1950. “Its objects are to collect in writing and disseminate the legendary history, customs and philosophy of our native Indians; also to encourage and preserve their ancient weaving, painting and sculptural arts; to promote the use of a Thunderbird Totem and the slogan “Totem-Land” as the symbol of the color and romantic interest of the British Columbia Indian together with their singular totemology and unique wood carving art; to advise, encourage and support the British Columbia Indians in overcoming obstacles that may stand in the way of the attainment to the enjoyment of full citizenship” (Mayor Chas. E. Thompson, President of Totem Land Society. The Native Voice, Aug. 1950 ).


Ellen Neel is commissioned to produce an insignia for the Totemand Society. Neel provided the model for the totem pole that was used on the letterhead of the society for the promotion of tourism.

August 1, 1950

“One of Vancouver’s unique attractions is the Edward and Mary Lipsett Indian Museum at Hastings Park. Mary Lipsett has been made an honorary life member at Totem-Land. Because this remarkable exhibition was opened during the war, and also because it is located off the beaten trail, many citizens are not aware that Vancouver has the only strictly Indian Museum in Canada and one of the finest collections of its kind in the world. It is valued at $40,000…. Here art of Indians from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Eskimos in the north to the Pomas in the south may be seen and studied” (“Indian Treasures Almost Lost to BC.” The Native Voice, Aug. 1950).


The Vancouver Totemland Society commissions Neel to design and make model totem poles for their use in promoting tourism. The Society promotes the Totem Pole as the symbol of Vancouver and the North West Coast. The Society, organized by Harry Duker, is responsible for erecting poles and images of totem poles on highways coming into the city.

Neel's 61 centimetre totem pole featured a thunderbird with outstretched wings on top of an oval-shaped green globe with a map of the BC coast showing Alert Bay in the centre and a kneeling human on the bottom. This design was used on the Totemland stationary and on numerous tourist items such as dinnerware sets.

In 1951, Duker presents a totem pole carved by Ellen Neel for the Totemland Society to actress Katharine Hepburn.

Ellen Neel’s work is exhibited at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.


In 1953, David Neel, age 16 son of Ellen & Ted Neel carves a miniature likeness of comedian Bob Hope as the “ world's smallest totem.” It was presented to Bob Hope for publicity purposes.


The Neel family under the direction of Ellen Neel carves an eleven foot pole for a new museum in Copenhagen, Denmark (“Danish Museum to get Totem Pole from City." The Province Jan. 24, 1953.) The pole was commissioned by a Danish company involved in lumber importing. They wanted a work of art "typical of the best Indian work on the coast."


Ellen Neel delivers five Totem poles to an Edmonton shopping centre.


Bill Reid and Douglas Cranmer are commissioned to make copies of two Haida style houses and five totem poles at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.


In 1959 Mungo Martin’s son David, also a totem carver, is lost at sea (Native Voice, Oct. 1959, p.1).

June 25, 1962

The Haida section of Totem Park at UBC opens on June 25, 1962. It includes a 19th century Haida family dwelling and a smaller mortuary house. Ten totem poles were already at the site being worked on by contemporary First Nations artists Bill Reid, Douglas Cranmer, Norman Tait, Mungo Martin and others.


Ellen Neel restores the Kwakiutl Tsa-wee-noh house post (since replaced with a replica), carved by her grandfather Charlie James of Alert Bay.


The Province of British Columbia adopts the totem pole as its symbol for the 1966 centennial. For the organizers, the "Route of the Totems" was a reasonable endeavour that would both encourage non-Aboriginal appreciation of the province's Aboriginal heritage and "would help the local Indians to revive and perpetuate their native customs." Wilson Duff and the Indian Participation Committee had worked hard to commission talented carvers to produce first-class poles, and they tried to pay attention to local sensibilities. Duff and Nuu-chah-nulth artist George Clutesi judged the final submissions, either approving their inclusion in the project (and final payment to the artist) or recommending alterations if the poles did not meet their standards” (Roy 60-61).

The 19 commissioned poles, all with the Grizzly Bear as a central motif, were placed along the east coast of Vancouver Island to “mark the Route of the Totems”, they were also placed at ferry terminals as far north as Prince Rupert (Jonaitis 115). Carver Tony Hunt created the Kwakiutl Bear Pole in 1966 as part of this project; it still stands at Horseshoe Bay.

Another of the commissioned bear poles was carved in 1966 by the Kwakwala Arts and Crafts organization in Alert Bay as part of the "Route of Totems" on Vancouver Island. James Sewid was project leader, Henry Speck was senior designer, Charlie George was senior carver and Blackie Dick was assistant carver. The pole was dedicated and remained outside the Comox Valley Visitor Info Centre in Courtenay until due to weathering it was removed in 2004.

In 2005 the totem was restored by John Speck, son of Henry Speck. Due to the totem's fragile condition, the pole, on loan from the City of Courtenay, was placed inside the Comox valley Airport.

February 3, 1966

Ellen Neel who had worked under constant economic pressure since she began her work as an artist, dies on February 3, 1966 at age 49. In 1966, she had been in Vancouver General Hospital since January. A portion of her ashes are scattered by plane over Johnstone Strait and the Cluxewe River near Port McNeil; the rest are buried at Alert Bay."We consider it one of the great tragedies of our time that she did not receive the economic help that should have come with the recognition of the outstanding contribution she made. And as for that failure, we are all guilty." (Native Voice, 3, February 1966)


After Expo '67 closed in Montreal, the Expo site lived on as place for exhibitions such as the "Man and His World" exhibit held during the summer months of 1968. Exhibits were held there from 1968 until 1981. In 1970 Robert Davidson, sponsored by the UBC Musuem of Anthropology demonstrated carving at the site and presented a ten foot totem pole to the city of Montreal. However by the 1970's, some of the buildings had fallen into disrepair and some had been dismantled.