Totem poles, house posts, Coast Salish art, wood carving, art in British Columbia, NorthWest Coast


Okay, its not really called Totempolooza, its just four guys with whirling chainsaws, swinging big adzes, all in close proximity, carving four totem poles at the same time.

Quite unexpectedly, I got word about a competition for more carvings at the Squamish/Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, British Columbia. I heard back fairly quickly that I got one of the commissions, and we were up within the week, on Christmas Eve, to start work on four houseposts for the Centre. I’ve never seen so many carvings happening in the same place. Johnathon Joe from Lil’wat Nation, and Xwalacktun, Sesiyam (Ray), and myself all have 20 foot carvings going into the Centre by March.

The temperatures are right around freezing, and below, with a fair amount of snow.
Ray’s welcome figure/housepost outside the Centre.Did I mention it's cold?
Did I mention that it’s cold?

The housepost is a kind of totem pole that the Coast Salish people carve. With over 200 First Nations in British Columbia, alone, there is a lot of diversity in the kinds of formats people carve on, and their are subtle differences which distinguish them. Houseposts are the main upright supports which hold up the cross beams of our longhouse, historically, but are carved for a variety of other reasons today. Some Nations focus on carving clan symbols, but ours depict what kind of stories and values hold up individual longhouses.

These logs are yellow cedar, sometimes called Cypress, or Alaska cedar and I think it’s the nicest carving wood in the world. The yellow cedar isn’t always used on these big pieces, because it has a tendency to crack if it is thick and doesn’t dry evenly. Mine has a big fall-crack in it from when it came down. I estimate it weighs 3,500 pounds/1,600 kg, and mine is the smallest of the four logs being carved.
my log
I couldn’t get to the ‘bottom’ face of the log at this point, but thought my best option was to follow this big crack, and it turned out to extend at least half way up the log, so it’s just as well I removed it to make this side the back of my piece. It’s a shame, really, as this side only had one little knot.
first step carving totem pole
Start on the ends, and make a centre line to work from.

I made a big old mess of sawdust on this part. Bigger than I normally make, even. But I got this far (above) before trying a new idea for me. I made some plywood ’wheels’ so I can roll the log without damaging the edges, and leaving marks from my car jack and levers. Now I can roll it over by myself to am able to carve the edges and front more easily. Xwalacktun had made a kind of spindle system, with carriages at either end so he could roll even giant logs by himself. These plywood wheels aren’t as good, really, but fine for this kind of project.
beam roller, log roller, totem pole rollers
Reinventing the wheel.

rolled right over
Here is what is to become the front of the post. Some knots in this side of the wood, but at least it isn’t cracked like the back was. I can complete a scaled sketch now that I know what kind of wood I have to work with. I like to sketch on a scaled piece of wood to get a better sense of the depths and planes I have to carve. I have made a plan to remove the back of the log, and hollow some of it out to reduce internal cracking and have it dry a little more evenly, then put the back back on and carve it also, as it will be seen from both sides. Normally these posts would be flat up against the inside of the longhouse, so wouldn’t be visible from the back, but the SLCC is clad in glass.

Above to the left, you can see Ray’s log has become a large squared post, with nice clean surfaces to draw on.
my sketch on the log
My scaled sketch on the face of the log.

I’ve made some ‘cake’ cuts or ‘witness’ cuts through the bark of the tree and through the slab/sapwood, which is the outer layer of growing tree. This pinky-white sapwood doesn’t have an oil in it, and will blacken and fall off in a fairly short time, so we take it off first. I chopped most of this off between the sawcuts with a big adze because cedar splits off nicely. If the wood has cracks, or bruises from taking it down and moving it, we can see it better this way, also, and it gives us a clean surface to draw on.

Xwalacktun going old school
Xwalacktun started off kind of old school, removing all the bark and the outer sap wood with a broad axe and adzes. He doesn’t always do this, but the frozen sap wood and very dirty bark was playing havoc with our chainsaws, and doing it this way saves the most volume out of a log for him to design with. He has a plan for carving which will be as complex on the back as the front, and he just sliced the log in half lengthwise so he can hollow a lot of it out. Ray Natraoro / Sesiyam
Victor and Ray

Meanwhile, Ray and his apprentice Victor jumped right onto his log with a big chainsaw, and freehanded this difficult first cut. Ray is an accomplished carving, making masks, canoes, and poles, and composes beautiful songs. He and Victor are also very involved in our Squamish Nation ceremonial works

We endure many slurs about using modern tools like a chainsaw, and for using steel tools from about half the people who come by. And even get negative comments about using our traditional adzes and bent blades, from a smaller minority who seem to think we’re just playing the primitive. A guy can always get advice, eh?

Most people don’t seem to have any ill-intent, as far as I can tell, but I think it speaks to the historically anthropological view most people still have of us. I can even see a lot of people are quite surprised by what they say out loud to us, because sometimes it sounds pretty bad. But at least we get to have some interesting and positive conversations with people, which seems to be a big part of the job.

Xwalacktun has mentioned many times over the years that these big carvings are for instigating conversations, and people who have never seen one before can share stories from their own cultures and unique perspectives, about the creatures they see depicted on the carvings. We carvers design these to tell a specific story, but also realize many people interpret them their own way.