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The Message Sent through the Burning of the Malahat Totem Pole

By Celine Ramos

On July 1st, a gathering met on Vancouver Island in protest of Canada’s history of residential schools which were used to assimilate Indigenous children into European culture and reflected on the fact that over 1000 unmarked graves have been discovered on the grounds of these institutions. That same night, a part of that gathering broke away and headed toward the statue of an explorer named James Cook on the 700-block of Government Street, and they dumped it into the Victoria Harbor. In retaliation, a Malahat totem pole was burned down soon after by opposing protestors.

The totem pole was on a reservation and set on fire not far from where the statue was thrown in. Near the charred totem, a piece of graffiti was found scrawled that read, “one totem – one statue”. It’s clear that whoever burned this totem intended to silence the voices and intimidate Indigenous people, and advocates trying to speak out about the historical as well as ongoing violence toward indigenous people.

Totem poles are used by certain First Nation tribes across the Northwest coast of Canada as well as a few tribes of the United States and have become closely synonymous with a generalized image of Indigenous culture. With that synonymity has carried a widespread misunderstanding of their meaning and use in the cultures of the Tribes from which they originate. Upon first laying eyes on them, Captain Cook remarked that totem poles were “truly monstrous figures”. They’re very powerful, striking creations, but unfortunately the image of them has been seized by colonialism as an object used to control, distort, and debase the understanding of Indigenous people and their cultures.

When first gazed at by European eyes, totem poles were thought to be beyond the artistic capabilities of who they assumed to be barbaric people and were even likened to be similar skills as European art. Despite their visual beauty, Christian missionaries took to demonizing them because it was assumed the totem poles were Pagan idols; thus they were a threat to the desire to push assimilation on Indigenous tribes. Eventually, the missionaries were able to convince, or force, Indigenous people to stop creating totem poles and destroy some of the poles that had already been erected. From the 19th century onward, there were bans placed on many Indigenous cultural practices. This made it easier to erase the thousands of years of tradition intended to be forcibly replaced with European culture. This included a ban on Potlatches, gift-giving ceremonies integral to First Nation tribes as a means of redistributing valuable goods such as firearms, food, and canoes, during which totem poles were often erected. Around this time, totem poles began to be culturally appropriated by Europeans.

It would seem Europeans assumed there was something inherently familiar about totem poles because they were such exquisite pieces of art which meant they were ripe for picking, and eventually becoming symbols of Canadian identity. In 1958, shortly after the ban on Indigenous practices was lifted, Kwakwaka’wakw totem carver Mungo Martin was commissioned by the federal government to make a pole for the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth, for the centennial of British Columbia. Robin R. R. Gray, a Tsimshian anthropologist, says “the trend of appropriating Indigenous cultural heritage has been part and parcel to the building of empire”. Totem poles for First Nation peoples are “communicators of Indigenous knowledge, events, history, place, rights, laws, and identity”. They’re not Pagan idols or simplified objects of extraordinary beauty and artistic ability to be commodified. Their meaning is deeply entrenched in a wider cultural makeup that European colonizers never sought to understand and now, totem poles have ignorantly found their place being utilized in mass marketing, fashion, and discourse that does nothing to reference their truth. As Gray says, appropriation isn’t just about borrowing from other cultures, but it’s “also about controlling knowledge”.

James Cook is credited with expanding British colonial rule to territories primarily inhabited only by Indigenous people, one area of which is now known as Canada. Anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere writes that Cook “initially saw himself as an enlightened ‘civilizer’, bringing a new vision of the world to the so-called ‘savage lands’. Cook’s original intentions weren’t to oppress or uproot indigenous people, but to give them the gift of the culture he had been used as a European. Ultimately, his actions were rooted in pure ignorance which has been the beating heart of colonial tyranny.

Cook didn’t anticipate the resistance Indigenous tribes had to adopting his vision because in his eyes European culture was the colonial standard used to judge any people who were vastly different from himself in tradition, spirituality, and lifestyle. The irony is that, as Gananath shares, Cook became increasingly tyrannical while meeting the Indigenous peoples’ resistance to adopting his European ways, which led him to becoming the same ‘savage’ he was seeking to root out. Perhaps the thought that people who had a vastly different culture from his people and the ability to be assimilated into his vision of civilization was too challenging for Cook to accept.

Due to the knowledge of what totem poles represent being submerged, the culprits who burned the Malahat totem pole weren’t aware of the message they were actually sending. Their actions were shoving into the faces of Indigenous people that no matter how many protests were held or statues were toppled the effects of colonialism would always outpace them. It’s a message of abject ignorance. If the presumably non-Indigenous people who burned the totem pole were more knowledgeable of its cultural origins and its history, they’d understand that burning a totem pole isn’t an appropriate response to, in particular, the toppling of a statute of James Cook into the Victoria Harbor. The message “one totem – one statue” implies that the burning of the Malahat totem pole was an ‘eye for an eye’ which it would never measure up to be. What the protestors did to the statue wasn’t an attempt to debase or distort European cultures; It was an attempt at illuminating the facts of history.

While both are considered vandalism, the fact remains that Indigenous people have long been unsupported by the empires that took over their lands and cultures. Numerous treaties haven’t been honored and countless women, and girls, have gone missing without receiving justice. Now, over 1500 unmarked graves have been discovered on the grounds of residential schools that were a direct result of the same systems that sought to destroy the truth of totem poles used by Indigenous tribes. The language of colonialism is brutal and violent. In such a political environment that should be focused on human rights, it’s hard to be heard without tearing down statues. These statues would likely be refused to be removed by the entities that keep them standing. Colonialism will continue to try to silence Indigenous people and the only solution is to stand with them in solidarity, pay attention and make way for their voices to be heard.


UK faces reckoning after unmarked Indigenous graves discovered

Protestors toss statue of explorer James Cook into Victoria harbour; totem pole later burned

Captain Cook wanted to introduce British justice to Indigenous people. Instead, he became increasingly cruel and violent

Canada’s Complicated History with First Nation Totem Poles

Appropriation (?) of the Month: First Nation Totem Poles

Totem Pole

Totem Poles

14 ¢ James Cook 1978



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