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Ask MOA: What Is This Totem Pole?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case is a totem pole inherited by the inquirer from her father.

Question from inquirer:

“In the 1970s my father bought a totem from a man who entered the Westin Bayshore hotel in Vancouver. Unfortunately, my father passed away a few years ago so I cannot ask him further information. I now inherited the totem and would love to know more about it as I have a very special connection to it. My parents moved to Germany with us some years ago and I am living now in Spain, where the totem hangs in the entrance of our house so that I always remember my roots. I thought maybe you could help me. Could you tell me from which tribe the totem comes from? Do you know the artist? Or could you tell me where I could find information?”

Answer from Karen Duffek and Christopher Smith:

Thanks for your interesting query. It sent us on a bit of a research quest: because of the pole’s somewhat rough workmanship and idiosyncratic designing but deeply sculpted style, I immediately thought that it looked like the work of the late Nuu-chah-nulth carver Jimmy John (1876 – 1988, from the west coast of Vancouver Island), but then I wondered if the late Simon Charlie carved it (1919 – 2005, Coast Salish from southern Vancouver Island). I also wondered whether there could be a more local Indigenous connection, since your father bought it from someone in Vancouver.

So, I consulted with Christopher Smith, a PhD student in anthropology at UBC and a foremost expert on model totem poles. Here is what he said:

“Jimmy John did carve a monumental version of this pole that was raised in Duncan, BC, before the City of Totems campaign began in 1985. I suspect that Simon Charlie helped with that original pole, given the number of poles he was carving in Duncan at the time and some of the choices made in the monumental totem design. Here are photos of the original pole and a similar pole by Simon Charlie. The “chip-style” carving on the model model pole now in Spain is a signature of Jimmy John’s later work, but it was also picked up by his son Leslie John – and unless signed, the two carvers’ styles are indistinguishable. The “kneeling bear” was a favourite motif of Jimmy John’s.

A similar pole by Simon Charlie, at Qualicum Beach, BC
The original Jimmy John pole in Duncan, BC

The same carving style resonated with at least a few other Coast Salish carvers of varying skill, and I have seen at least one of these signed totems with the same figures by a Cowichan maker. It’s hard to say – the pole now in Spain could be a Coast Salish copy – but I think it’s conceivable that Jimmy John or his son Leslie carved it, taking into account Jimmy John’s advanced age (and decrease in refined carving skills) and his son’s skill set.”

As you can see, we don’t have a definitive answer for you but certainly some strong clues as to your pole’s relationship to the well-known and influential, full-size pole by Jimmy John in Duncan. It is not only the overall form and subject matter of the pole, but also the way the details are carved and painted – the eyes, the composition of motifs on the wings, arms, and legs – that can offer clues to help identify a carver’s work.

Response from inquirer:

Thank you so much for all the information. It is really appreciated. I shared it with my mum and she is also very excited. It means a lot to me and my family! We definitely will plan a trip to Duncan next time we come to Vancouver.