An Invitation to a Totem Raising
AN INVITATION TO A TOTEM RAISING
My recent trip to Haida Gwaii was part of my mother’s bucket list. I was in charge of booking a rental house for my mother, stepfather, my 19-year-old twin sons and myself. I booked a house in Massett and the owners of the vacation rental invited us to a totem raising on June 21, 2017, the last day of our stay.
It turns out it’s been 200 years since a totem stood at the Hiellen Longhouse Village and it was going to be a big celebration. So the landlords of the vacation rental invited us, then the waitress at the Island Sunrise Café invited us and then the Parks staff we met at the top of Tow Hill invited us. We felt very welcomed. Oh yes, we were going.
There’s one gravel road to the Hiellen Longhouse Village and everyone parked on the side of the road and walked about a kilometre to the totem raising. The Old Massett Village Council provided shuttles for people who couldn’t walk and I mention this because it really illustrates the Haida Nation’s respect for elders.
Several hundred people showed up and it was an interesting crowd, definitely not what you would have seen 200 years ago. There were a lot of people wearing their traditional Haida regalia, and then just as many wearing raincoats and ball caps. There were even a couple of Mounties in red serge.
The celebration kicked off on the beach at the mouth of the Hiellen River. The carvers arrived in a traditional canoe with one of the carvers dressed as a grizzly at the bow. As they paddled into the shore, a group of women was drumming and singing, kids were running around, everyone was taking pictures and there was even a drone overhead.
The carvers were definitely the stars of the show and once they left the canoe, we all followed them up the totem. The apprentices, journeymen and master carver Christian White spent six months transforming a 600-year-old cedar into a totem and this was their big day. They were front and centre in the singing, the dancing and the ceremony. I must admit I got a lump in my throat listening to the young carvers describe the pride in their work and their Haida traditions.
And then the big moment: we were going to raise the totem. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was invited to find a place on one of the five ropes attached to the totem. It didn’t matter who you were, or where you came from, we were all invited. There was a rustle of anticipation among the crowd, everyone was anxious to finally get the pole lifted. Someone started yelling, “Heave, heave, heave” and the totem slowly started going up.
It took a few tries, the totem had to be lowered and pulled up again because it wasn’t straight. There was a large coordinated effort to get it in position. One group would have to give their rope slack, while another would pull, while another would have to muster all their strength to keep the tension on the rope. Nobody said it would be easy to raise a 19 metre (62 foot) totem pole but we eventually got it. Once it was straight enough the people at the front dropped their ropes and started throwing rocks and shovelling sand into the huge hole where the bottom of the totem rested. (Approx. 3 metres of the pole is buried and the rest is visible)
A group of people, of all ages and backgrounds raised a totem, a gyaaGang (monumental pole). I’m sure some sort of machine could easily raise the totem without all the ropes and effort, but there is something deeply satisfying about a community of family, friends and strangers working together to pay homage to the Haida culture.
Thank you for the invitation. Haw’aa.
Footnote: I would invite anyone who is interested about the meanings and stories in the carved images to read Raising a GyaaG̲ang on the Council of the Haida Nation website.
TO THE EDITORS - If you do decide to use this story - I do I have more photos, I could only upload five. It could be a photo essay if you prefer. I was unable to embed the link to the story on the Council of the Haida Nation website.