Here are images of a story carved in Western Red Cedar that’s not mine to tell. It belongs to the Coast Salish People. You will have to use your imagination, Dear Reader, as you look up the pole to piece a story together which makes sense to you.
The tale starts and the bottom and ends at the top.
The characters, human and animal, are in the order they appear in the narrative …
… from the diligent warrior, all the way to the runaway couple at the top.
The images of frog, heron, the Creator, octopus, and a canoe are split so they wrap around the pole and can be seen from both sides. That frog’s split/shared tongue symbolises a betrayal – the failure to keep a secret / a broken promise.
This story pole or legend pole stands in the grounds of the University of Victoria. (The label ‘totem’ is incorrect for it is an Objibwe word.) It marks the territory of the Coast Salish People of the Pacific NorthWest.
I was in Victoria BC. for the conference ‘Narrative Matters 2016.’ My first session was right here on the UVic campus- “Vertical Narrative: Reading History in a Coast Salish Pole” – led by the Director of the U.Vic’s Legacy Art Galleries.
The pole was completed in 1990 by master carver Charlie Elliott, of the Tsartlip First Nation, in negotiation with local elders. It faces east, towards Cadboro Bay because this traditional story is set there.
The warrior has his arm around his wife to protect her, but to no avail.
Look up at the top. Can you see a black stone, a type commonly found in Cadboro Bay, embedded between the pair? This gives a clue re the couple’s fate.
This cultural message is regarded by the First Peoples as a true story. They regard Western Red Cedar as the Tree of Life.
All text and photos by Meg Philp.
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