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.









August 1, 1950







June 25, 1962



February 3, 1966