The Last Totems

The silence is only broken by the croak of a raven or the high chittering cry of an eagle. Deer come to the water’s edge at dawn and an occasional bear passes through the dank grasses on its way to its retreat in the forest. The seasons come and go and with them the old decayed carvings gradually crumble and topple to the ground.

This is the land of the totem pole on the north coast and up the Nass and Skeena Rivers.

The old village sites are now almost lost in the encroaching rain forest growth that so quickly gains control once the human chain has been broken. Only the presence of a few gnarled fruit trees that cling tenaciously on amongst the cedars and spruce show that here once people lived busy and creative lives.

The deserted sites had curious but melodic names. Tian, Yaku, Gitwinsilk, Kuldo, Nahwitti, to name a few. Some poles still stand in villages that are occupied. Near Vancouver Island are Karlukwees and Mamalilaculla off Johnstone Strait. Kincome Inlet village, has a few poles. Up the Skeena are Kitwancool, Kitwanga, and Kispiox with groups of poles that have mostly now been restored to some degree.

The greatest collection of poles in the old days in sheer numbers and perhaps in beauty of design stood on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Only two sites here now have any number still in existence. The best and just about most remote village, in B.C. was Ninstints on Anthony Island near Cape Saint James. About 14 poles still stand but they are doomed as are all the others.

One by one they will totter and collapse with rot. They are too old now to be saved. A few carvings still stand at the deserted village of Skedarts.

Of the hundreds of poles that existed a century ago in Masset and Skidegate only one old pole still stands in the latter village. The rest either fell on their own accord or were removed to museums throughout the world early in this century.

But still the remaining few cling on in stately dignity overlooking the quiet waters. Because of their remoteness in many cases only the odd fisherman or anthropologist will get the opportunity to gaze on these graceful creations of another era. When the last of them finally falls we shall all have lost something most unique in our shrinking world.

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