The Pacific Coast - Indian Villages - Totem Poles

Walter J. Phillips' first visit to the West Coast seems to have occurred during the summer of 1927, when he visited Robert Sharp, his brother-in-law, at Alert Bay. Phillips published an account of this trip in his regular column Art and Artists in The Winnipeg Tribune. Later, he revised the article within his intended book on watercolour painting which he called Wet Paint. There were subsequent trips to the West Coast, but the first seems to have been the most productive and generated a large number of sketches. Some of these sketches would eventually be used for the ten wood engravings in his 1930 portfolio entitled An Essay in Woodcuts.

  The hours that were added to my span of life on the journey to the west coast I dissipated in a drive around Stanley Park. It was a sight-seeing bus, provided with a guide and a megaphone. The guide stopped us in front of the totem poles, and delivered a portentous lecture upon them. Now the totems were of great interest to me, as examples of primitive art, and I wept when he said that the method of making them was lost in the mists of antiquity. But I determined to learn something more about them. Alert Bay — the Papeete of the North Pacific — they said, was the place to got to. I went. In fact that was where I intended going, to visit my sister and her husband. It is a port of call on the tourist route, and though the place has been despoiled, it is still full of interest, compact of exotic life and strange monuments, redolent of romance. The town is built on a strip of land above the beach — a single street with a long and tenuous water-front, facing the sea, and brushing the fringe of the forest.

The board walk fronts many community houses, each with its totem; between it and the sea are a few shacks, a few stores, but it is mostly open, and separated only by a beach of rounded pebbles. The beach is littered with logs, white, gray, and flesh-coloured — and amongst them are a few painted canoes, most graceful craft.

Walking through the town you are alert to the unexpected. Almost next door to the cannery, which divides the Indian village from the rest, formerly stood the tall totem I had seen in Stanley Park. It was attached to the front of a large community house, and the spreading wings of the thunder bird were painted on the facade. The bird's lower jaw was pivoted to open and shut; open it disclosed an aperture, through which not so long ago prisoners were forced to crawl to receive a lethal blow when their heads appeared within the building. At least, so the story goes; historians will probably discredit it, but it presents a whimsical variation of walking the plank, a practice in vogue at that time.

One day I walked to the end of the village, past the Indian agent's house, and the parsonage, and saw an Indian hacking away industriously at a cedar log, with an adze. The log already suggested a totem pole, and the shapes of a bear, a man, and an eagle, could be distinguished, a little amorphous at that stage of materialization perhaps, but recognisable one above the other in the approved style. Needless to say I pulled up sharply, and enquired of the sculptor how it happened that he was practicing an art already deemed extinct. He was a cheerful soul, and chewed gum even more assiduously and noisily than he hacked. He could chew while he talked, whereas his hacking diminished both in tempo and vigour as he groped for words in unaccustomed English. And he smiled broadly and affably as he told his story, and elucidated the craft of totem-pole making.

The log lay prone on supports, a foot above the beach. It was begun, and would be finished in that position. The roughing out was done entirely with a curved four-inch adze, which might be described as a compromise between an axe and a hoe, and the finishing with straight and curved knives and small gouges. Unusual protuberances, such as outstretched wings, fins, or the gigantic beaks of fantastic birds, are carved separately on odd pieces of wood, and attached afterwards by various means. Much of the detail was painted with mineral colour ground with salmon eggs — coal, chalk, and iron oxides — which dries with a dull, mellow sheen, far more beautiful than the glaring polish of the house-paint of commerce, which, alas, is sometimes used now. The finished article was formerly erected like a fence-pole, that is, stuck in a hole in the ground, but now it is sometimes set in a concrete base like a sophisticated flag-pole.

The artist treats birds, animals, fish, and men, decoratively, and at times grotesquely, so that they are often difficult to identify. The thunder bird figures frequently, and might be the eagle but for the twin crests on his crown. This mythical bird causes the thunder that accompanies the families under its protection.

Comparative size does not bother the artist in the least. On the same pole a kingfisher may be larger than a whale, and an eagle big enough to swallow a bear whole. But he knows a good deal about unity in design, good proportion, and fine decorative modelling.

He told me how he had been brought up to the craft in Port Rupert, and had practiced there most of his life. The totem pole he was making, was one of a pair, commissioned by a Vancouver store. He had made, he said, three of the four examples in Stanley Park, that were previously pointed out to me as unique examples of a forgotten craft. Fortunately, its traditions have been kept, and thanks to the sound advice of the Indian agent, totem-poles are built, properly, for memorials as in ancient days, and inscribed slabs of marble imported from Vancouver are losing favour.

He took me into his work-shop. It was little larger than a tool-shed, but there was room for all his tools and his pigments, and here he makes models for his Caucasian customers. Several miniature carvings were on the bench, in various stages, a few completed. They were beautifully wrought.

But on the whole the display of native art at Alert Bay was disappointing. We determined to explore the more remote Indian winter villages, marked on the chart, and any others we might hear of. To that end my brother overhauled the Anne, provisioned her, and we weighed anchor one fine morning. The Anne is equipped with a small gasoline engine; she has a cabin midships, which is kitchen, engine-room, lounge, and bedroom, according to the time of day. I slept on deck under an awning, most comfortably.


Owing to our lack of power we were obliged to study the tides, but by evening the same day we arrived at the village of Tsatsisnukomi, in whose bay we lay. The crescent beach was fringed with a single row of buildings, mostly weathered gray, and comprising community houses, both habitable and derelict, and a hill clothed by the forest rose steeply behind. A fine canoe with a painted prow lay on the beach. The only totems visible were within a dismantled community-house, and served as supports for the mighty rafters. There were other supports too — stout, round, fluted pillars of wood, that recalled the columns of a ruined temple int he fading light. The totem were obviously family crests, and as such, were far more interesting than many of the heraldic devices issued by the College of Heralds. The place was entirely deserted save by an army of large and loathsome slugs and the ghosts of dead Indians. a damp and eerie spot.

Nettles grew to an unusual height about the buildings. We stayed a while the next day, until wind made the anchorage uncomfortable, but I had time to make pencil drawings of some of the more grotesque carvings, and a watercolour of the beach and part of the village, with two house-posts in the foreground, each representing a bear suckling a wolf. a little more than an hour's sailing across the channel brought us close to the sheltered bay around which the village of Mamalilicoola is spread. But it is a shallow bay, only navigable at high tide -- it was then a vast reach of mud -- and the best we could do was to anchor in an adjacent bay out of sight.

We had passed several small islands that were used as burial grounds. The monuments to the dead were often imposing — close at hand, and enveloped in mist, as we saw them on one occasion, they were almost alarming. Enormous fish painted in black and white on long planks of wood cut to the shape, were attached to upright supports like a modern billboard, though, as I have suggested, of heroic proportions.


The surroundings of Mamalilicoola are beautiful, and the village itself, larger than the other as we saw it from the sea, was strongly attractive. I was anxious to walk its single street. The bay in which we lay was secluded. The shore was obscured by a dense forest, which limited our view. On the chance that there was a trail within it leading to the village, we rowed to the head of the bay in the dinghy, and stepped ashore. There was indeed an old blazed trail, and a walk of a mile or more in a green twilight brought us to our objective. We entered a strange world as we emerged from a mass of head-high nettles on the sward immediately beneath a tall and magnificent totem-pole. It stood in front of a community house, the pediment of whose facade was carved and painted with an allegorical figure of the sun, flanked by two fishes. As we turned to the sea we looked upon a crescent beach, gleaming white with broken clam shells. a long and sinuous pier of floating logs indicated a good deal of canoe traffic. As we looked, a black canoe, with a white prow and an emerald green gunwale, glided silently alongside it, a squaw stepped out and shouldered an enormous bundle; her lord preceding her with a paddle. Half a mile seaward were the islands of the dead, and beyond them rose wooded heights of larger islands, the snow-capped peaks of Vancouver Island playing hide and seek in the clouds, and towering above them.

We walked along the neat pathway between the houses and the beach, and passed a number of totem, house-posts, and zunuks (joymen - grotesque and humorous single figures, formerly used at potlatches or other celebrations). Several of the zunuk wore tall hats, reminiscent of those affected by the early Jesuit missionaries. One, fallen from his high estate, (they are usually elevated on poles) and legless, served as a post to hold a family clothes line. a few women and old men, useless for fishing, remained in the village, and were friendly enough.

I found material for several days sketching: the outlook across the bay, with interesting foregrounds, views along the street, and from the beach. Clouds were at once the delight and the bane of the cruise. Their restlessness now disclosed unsuspected distances, now obliterated them wholly or in part, thus shifting the scene every few moments. The humidity of the air produced wonderful tones of blue in every background, and a range of soft harmonies which never occur in the mountains or on the prairies. As pure landscape it is the finest I have been privileged to see.


We found another village — Karlukwees — more interesting than the others. The clean white beach had borrowed its shape from the new moon. Here the chief's house — a very civilized little house, such as you see in any Canadian town — was flanked by two incongruous forbidding figures, each carrying a keg upon his shoulder. What exactly was their significance I could not imagine. The path was paved with enormous cedar planks, which must have measured five feet across. They had been split from the log with wedges, and trimmed with an adze. The cedar was indispensable to the Coast Indian, as the coco-palm is to the Polynesian; the date-palm to the Arab, and the canoe-birch to the Indian of the prairie. He hollowed the log by burning and shaped the ends to make his canoe; he split it with wedges to make great beams, planks, and the smaller shakes for building, literally sewing them together with pliable branches from the same tree. The bark served for fuel; its inner fibres for basket weaving, and its pigmentation for a dye.

Karlukwees provided many subjects for painting. In fact, never have I seen a more delectable sketching ground. We had penetrated an arm of the sea, the open sea seemed far away, for it flowed only in narrow channels, between an immense number of islands. I regretted leaving the coast, and I long to return.

Wet Paint, pp. 97 -106.