One of Haida Gwaii’s biggest totem poles was raised as a tribute to the ‘living Haida’ last week following a two-day potlatch ceremony in Old Massett.
Haida master carver Christian White and his family hosted the potlatch on Aug. 19 – 20 which saw more than 1,200 people attend from all over including neighbouring First Nations, Bella Bella, Vancouver, Alaska, Seattle and Ottawa to see the 63 ft tall, 5 ft wide pole erected outside his longhouse.
“I know the vehicles on the road, on the highway stretched for miles and people had to walk miles to attend the event from where they had parked their cars,” White said about the ceremonious affair.
People were excited because they were unable to gather for a very long time, since there have been no cultural events, he said.
White, a Fulmer Award recipient, said the pole – which stands now with 10 ft inside the ground and 53 ft out – has been a project long in the making.
Eight years ago, he got the western red cedar log, which is estimated to be somewhere between 800 to 1,000 years old from the Taan forest area on Haida Gwaii. It was only in February 2020, after the pandemic struck that White started work on the pole along with his brothers, nephews and son. They worked on it for 14 months in total.
“It was a long process, carving this massive totem pole and I had a very dedicated team and very skillful team of carvers working with me and it worked out perfectly,” White said. While designing the pole, he also looked for references from his ancestors’ totem poles. He incorporated some of those ideas in his own style onto the pole.
“There’s a shark crest and above that is sea grizzly, the killer whale, the moon, Raven, and surmounted by three watchmen [guardians] representing our ancestors in our different lineages
Along with the pole, they were also working on regalia, headdresses and masks for the potlatch which was organized by White’s wife Candace. “It was intense,” White said of the 16-hour-long work days he pulled toward the end to complete everything in time for the event.
At the event, he was given the new name ‘Kihlyahda’ which means “voice of the truth.” Many of the members of his family also received names on that day and they went on and announced the names of those who already had names too. For many of them, it was a chance to have their names acknowledged in public and to be seen by all guests and the witnesses of the event, he said.
“A totem pole serves to mark the day in history,” he said about the commemorative event.
This is White’s fourth totem on the site. The first one he carved was to mark his late father’s chieftainship Potlatch. The second pole he carved in 2006 and the third he carved as a memorial pole for his grandfather and his siblings.
The fourth one that was just raised, is not a memorial pole, but for the Haida that are still alive today, he said.
“I want to make our people feel proud of our heritage and proud of our culture, and our traditions,” he said.
The 60-year-old artist said he has many dreams about furthering his endeavors on Haida Gwaii.
“We have many ancient village sites that don’t have any totem poles remaining and we have some that have some totem poles but these will be gone in the next few years.”
White encourages the younger generation to go out on the land and explore and go into the forests and look at the cedars while they’re still there.