Victory Through Honour The Ellen Neel Kwakwaka’wakw pole returns to its home at the University of British Columbia

By Shauna Lewis

“To the Native people of the whole province we can give our assurance that your children will be accepted at this school by the Staff and Student Council, eager to smooth their paths with kindness and understanding. We need now only students to take advantage of the opportunity, so that some day our doctors, lawyers, social workers and departmental workers will be fully trained University graduates of our own race.”

~ Ellen Neel (Kwicksutaineuk), 1948
Source: The Native Voice, November 1948

Totem PoleThe year was 1948. The occasion: a UBC Homecoming football game. On October 30 during the half-time intermission, students and sports fans bore witness to the dedication and rise of the late Kwakwaka’wakw artist, Ellen Neel’s Victory Through Honor totem pole. With her husband Edward and respected Chief William Scow at her side, Neel gave the University of British Columbia two special gifts: the totem pole and the permission to use the Thunderbird name and crest for UBC athletic teams.

The beautiful gifts symbolized not only the movement towards a more culturally inclusive academic institution, but according to Neel’s daughter Theo, the totem pole represented a sort of cultural umbilical cord for those Native students who found themselves far from home and culturally displaced.

The 1948 totem stood for First Nations acknowledgment, empowerment, and according to the younger Neel, “the pole is a representation of the legends,” legends, that are integral in Kwakwaka’wakw cultural history. The Neel pole represented all that is sacred and empowering to First Nations people, and until January of this year, the original stood outside the campus’ main student services building. Rotting from the inside out, and sadly the victim of vandals, the 56-year-old testimony of cultural inclusion and veneration was not only rapidly decaying, but due to its steady decline and location, the pole was becoming a public safety hazard.

News of the pole’s demise spread fast and consequently led to the establishment of group of individuals devoted to the task of breathing life back into the sacred and important piece of First Nations history. Known simply as the Victory through Honor Pole Committee, more than two-dozen members including Michael Ames, director of the Museum of Anthropology, and author and professor of UBC’s art history department, Charlotte Townsend-Gault; established a team that would ultimately work towards restoration of the Kwakwakwaka pole.

It became apparent that the original pole was way beyond repair. Concern over the restoration of the original pole was replaced with the realization that a replica would have to be made.

On October 18, 2004, Elders, faculty, students, media and esteemed guests gathered once more outside UBC’s Brock Hall to witness and celebrate the rededication of Neel’s renowned pole.

The ceremony commenced with Kwakwaka’wakw Chief of the Heiltsuk Nation and Master of Ceremonies Edwin Newman, extending a welcome to guests and gratitude to former Musqueam Chief Delbert Guerin and the community for granting him and other Kwakwaka’wakw people permission to visit traditional Musqueam territory.

In commenting on the trailblazers who have had a hand in the revival of the Northwest coast artistic tradition, Chief Newman declared it was “people like Charlie James, Mungo Martin and Ellen Neel who had the courage to keep our culture alive with their carving.”

Not only did Neel have a part in the resurgence of traditional stylization; she was the first trained woman carver on the Northwest coast. From carving in a time when there was still a ban on the Northwest coast potlatch system, to allocating a place in a tradition primarily dominated by males, Neel broke down many barriers in the Native art scene.

For their tireless efforts in replicating the original pole, carvers Calvin Hunt, Mervin Child and John Livingston were given praise and recognition. Also recognized were Kwakwaka’wakw artists/carvers Doug Cramner and Elder George Hunt.

Martha Piper, the president of UBC, and Madeleine McIvor, acting director of UBC’S First Nations House of Learning, were two of four individuals called upon to witness the totem’s unveiling.

“On this day, we celebrate the vitality of traditional protocols in contemporary situations,” declared McIvor. “Today’s ceremony attests to the good thinking and hard work of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, the Musqueam peoples, and the University in bringing together three distinct cultural protocols in one unified and cohesive celebration.”

Larry Grant, a Musqueam resident, commemorated the moment and solidified the good ties established between the two Nations through the presentation of a Coast Salish blanket. This gift is “so that everyone is aware this was all done in friendship,” Grant stated as he handed the blanket over to a Kwakwaka’wakw woman sitting nearest to the podium.

Having the opportunity to speak with Grant, we touched on the historic relations between the Coast Salish and the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples. Admitting that past community relations between the two Nations haven’t always been peaceful, Grant emphasized that the establishment of a Kwakwakaw’wak totem pole on Musqueam territory is a sort of contemporary peace pipe, or as Grant put it, “a hand reaching out to try and bridge the differences between the us.”

Grant also made reference not only to the newfound connection of the two coastal Nations, but also to a tri-part interconnectedness established within the coming together of the Coast Salish culture, the Kwakwaka’wakw culture and the University culture. “A common goal,” said Grant, focuses on the need “to learn about and respect each others protocols and cultures.”

Elder and former Judge Alfred Scow’s talked with me about the importance of academia and the ever-changing processes of learning. “There has always been a learning process amongst our people from stories and legends of what our ancestors passed down to us,” stated Judge Scow. He emphasized that in contemporary times “we have to have the transition…the spirit of learning is going in a new direction.” Mr. Scow hoped that through the totem people would understand the “privileged presence of our traditions or cultures and our (Kwakwaka’wakw) people.”

The actual tangible remains of the original Victory through Honour totem pole can be found within Alert Bay’s U’mista Cultural Center.