• Jaalen Edenshaw works on the new totem pole

    Jaalen Edenshaw works on the new totem pole. (Photo: Parks Canada, J. Shafto)

It’s nearly 13 metres high, carved from a single red cedar tree and, until this August, the likes of it have not been raised for more than a century in Gwaii Haanas, a 5,000-square-kilometre protected area encompassing the southernmost portion of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia.

The new totem pole, known as the Gwaii Haanas legacy pole, honours the 20th anniversary of the agreement between the Haida Nation and the federal government to jointly manage Gwaii Haanas.

With less than two months to go before the new pole is raised on Lyell Island on Aug. 15, Jaalen Edenshaw, the Haida carver who’s been crafting it, spoke to Canadian Geographic about his work.

Canadian Geographic: What does this pole mean to the Haida Nation?

Jaalen Edenshaw: It’s our way of paying respect to those who joined the Lyell Island blockade in 1985. [The blockade eventually led to the Gwaii Haanas Agreement.] They stood against the logging companies that were devastating the region. It was done in a peaceful way, got results and was a very important moment in our history.

CG: What are the main features of the pole?

JE: Gwaii Haanas is the only area in the world that’s protected from ocean floor to mountaintop, and that influenced my design. At the bottom, there’s a sculpin [a bottom-feeding fish], and at the top, an eagle. The main feature is a group of five people standing together to represent the strength of the Lyell Island blockade.

CG: How long have you been working on it?

JE: More than a year’s worth of hours. I work with an assistant and we carve eight hours a day, five to six days a week. My brother is now helping us so we can finish it for August.

CG: What steps are taken when carving a totem pole?

JE: I went into the woods and found a nice 500-year-old cedar. A tree will look perfect when it’s standing, but sometimes you discover problems after you’ve cut it down. This one had rot throughout its entire length, so I had to hollow it out. Then I milled it down, laid out the design, drew a scaled version and started carving it in blocks. From there you refine.

CG: Why did you want to be involved with this project?

JE: It was a great opportunity to carve something to go up on my own land. I’ve worked on many projects, but this one gave me a chance to help preserve our history.


Learn about the carvings’ significance

Eagle

Gwaii Haanas is the only area in the world that is protected from ocean floor to mountaintop. The eagle represents the creatures that are protected in the mountains. The Eagle is also the name of one of the two Haida Nation moieties.

Three Watchmen

This section represents the watchmen who keep an eye on the protected land and who educate visitors about culture and Haida history.

Sacred-One-Standing-and-Moving

In 2012, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake shook Haida Gwaii and threatened a tsunami. The hot springs, which were a popular natural attraction in the national park, dried up as a result. In Haida culture, Sacred-One-Standing-and-Moving is a being that holds Earth up and causes the tremors. He is draped in the Wasgo (sea wolf) skin, which enhances his powers in his struggle to hold up Haida Gwaii.

Raven

The Raven represents the second Haida nation moiety.

Five People Standing Together

The five people standing together represents the Lyell Island blockade of 1985. The Haida Nation stood up against the forestry industry that was destroying its land. This set the South Moresby agreement in motion and eventually led to the signing of the Gwaii Haanas agreement in 1993.

Grizzly Bear

There aren’t any grizzly bears living in Haida Gwaii today, however the Haida Nation has a number of stories that reference their presence. In the past twenty years, the Gwaii Haanas agreement has drawn the attention of archeologists from around the country, and ten years ago the bones of a grizzly bear were discovered. The bones were found to be at least 1300 years old and were located near a spearhead of the same age, verifying the Haida stories.

Sculpin

Gwaii Haanas is the only area in the world that is protected from ocean floor to mountaintop. The sculpin is a bottom feeding fish, which represents the protection of all aquatic life.