They are to me like history books with the difference that the totems are made of cedar wood and they have a considerable size. The most skilful master carvers were the Indians of the North-western coast. If there was a myth to tell, apart from the stories passed down verbally, the totems represented their written legacy and they had to be interpreted.
Today, they are scattered mostly around Vancouver and West Canada but they can also be found throughout the country to represent its origins. Over time they have achieved great expressive forms, so much so that the neighbouring peoples have begun to take inspiration from it.
The trees preferred by the natives to make the totems were the cedar trees and the motifs were those that usually resumed their spiritual world. The subjects recreated were many depending on the type of celebration because they were usually carved in preparation for a special occasion such as a birth, a marriage or the death of a tribal leader. Not infrequently entire mythological cycles were represented, a sort of story carved on wood.
Particular attention was paid, in particular, to human faces and wild animals found in the area such as bears, eagles, salmons, whales and frogs, but especially crows which often appear at the top of the totems themselves. That’s because for the Indians they represented the ancestors of humanity and the totems somehow also concerned the family tree of the family group of each native, a sort of literal family tree one could say.
The animal shapes were therefore not randomly chosen, but they rather recalled facts handed down, characters of tribal members and elements with a legendary connotation. The totems count tells of wars but also of storms or about social achievements of tribal families.
Located mostly on deserted beaches or in the clearings of the forests, the totems of the British Columbia (Canadian province on the Pacific coast) look magical and mysterious, they are perhaps the most sensational primitive works of art known to us.
Even in the museums, where they attract more attention than any other object of exotic provenance, visitors are amazed by the grotesque faces and mythical figures sculpted by ancient masters.
Then, like today, the genius of the most talented sculptors recognized themselves in realistic stylization. In their hands, simple trunks of cedar are transformed into symbolic figurations drawn from life and legend.
The totems had above all the function of remembrance: these “talking trees” remain strangely silent about their origins. Although the totems are similar to sculptures present in the South Pacific and very different from the works of art of other North American tribes, ethnologists almost agree that the first Natives of the Northwest came from Asia via the Bering Strait about 10.000 years ago. They apparently settled on the coast made prosperous by the immense riches that the forest and the sea offered, those Indians gave rise to a very refined culture. The so-called “salmon eaters” lived in community houses built with cedar boards and had become skilled in woodworking so the golden age for totem sculptors was the nineteenth century, when the Indians replaced the stone and bone tools with iron utensils from Europe.
Some of them can be up to 25 meters in height and the most beautiful totems reach such a high symbolic content to deserve the name of “wooden parables.”
They are highly appreciated in Canada and the best examples can be seen in museums throughout the country even today.