Take a totem pole tour on Vancouver Island
in Duncan, British Columbia (aka City of Totems)
Duncan, British Columbia is the unofficial capital of the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. It is also know as the “City of Totems.” More than 40 First Nations carvings are located throughout the town.
Duncan is located on the traditional lands of the Cowichan First Nation, who have lived here for millenia. The current city of Duncan began as a village called Alderlea in 1887. William Chalmers Duncan donated farmland for the town site. The railway crossed Duncan’s land and the train station became known as “Duncan’s Station.” “Duncan” became the official name of the city when it incorporated in 1912. The city shares a boundary with Cowichan Tribes lands in the heart of its commercial core and the two communities work together on infrastructure, services and community programs.
The totem pole project began in 1985 to attract visitors to Duncan. The number of totem poles grew over the years. The designs of the poles reflect peoples’ lives, businesses and families, and represent two cultures coming together. In 2012, dedicated signage was developed to provide information about the specific totem, its carver and the story the pole depicts.
The railway station in the centre of town is a good place to start your own walking tour. There is a public parking lot beside the station as well as green space and a cluster of totems poles. It seems a fitting place to start because the railway helped make Duncan the commercial centre of the Cowichan Valley.
The two-storey, wooden railway station was built in 1912. The second floor was the agent’s living quarters. Today, the building houses the Cowichan Valley Museum.
Tall, carved poles have been made on the Northwest Coast since ancient times. The Kwakwak’wakw and Nuu-cha-nulth tribes made totem poles as giant human welcome figures. The Coast Salish people carved large human figures on poles to represent ancestors and spirit helpers. The design of house posts or totem poles told a family’s story.
The woman and man in Cedar Woman and Man are wearing Coast Salish blankets. The two figures represent a balance between the male and female aspects of life. Western Red Cedar, known as the Mother Tree by First Nations, was used for all of the poles in the collection.
Cedar Man Walking out of the Log is the world’s widest totem at 5 feet 11 inches in diameter. The design came from a Hunt family pole that honoured Mungo martin, a Kwagu’ł master carver. The top of the pole was left natural so people could see the log. It forms the hairline for Cedar Man.
David Marston said this about his carving Transition in an October 2014 interview: “The pole represents the family: the mother, the father, and the child. The Seal represents the family’s food supply. We share the earth with the Killer Whale and Seal, and they share it with us; we affect each other. The Seal, Killer Whale, and Man share the wealth of the sea, namely Salmon.”
The totem pole has become a key symbol of Northwest Coast First Nations. In the 19th century, settlers in British Columbia sought to assimilate First Nations people and threatened to limit expressions of traditional culture. Potlatches, the ceremonies held when new totem poles were raised, were made illegal. Many tribes stopped making totem poles, although they still carved small models for tourists. The anti-potlatch law was dropped in 1951. The Northwest Native peoples resumed carving totem poles.
You can find a map of the totem poles on the Duncan Visitors site or you can wander through the town following the footprints on the sidewalk.
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