Visiting Vancouver BC with kids, be sure to see the totem poles at Brockton Point in Stanley Park. Here are tips how to identify figures of animals and supernatural beings carved on the totem poles.
In past centuries, First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest – Kwakiutl, Haida, Tlinglit, Coast Salish, Nuxalt. Tsimshian – raised up huge poles of red cedar, carved and painted in bright colors with red, black, green.
On totem poles are carved animals and supernatural beings, which represent family crests and tell stories.
Crests, e.g. Wolf, Eagle, Killer Whale, Beaver,Thunderbird, are the mythical ancestors of First Nation families and their clans. Other figures on the totem pole portray an origin story, myth or legend.
One famous legend is the trickster Raven, who steals the sun from Sky Chief and brings the sun, moon and stars to humans. See how many ravens kids can find on the totem poles here in Stanley Park.
Animals on the totem poles are not ordinary, they can transform into humans, are spiritual guardians with powers and skills. Frog brings good luck and is treated with deep respect. Sea Bear is part bear, part killer whale. Thunderbird is especially powerful – he beats his wings to make thunder, lightning comes from his eyes, and snatches up big whales to eat.
Supernatural beings can be good or harmful. Huxwhukw is a mythical bird of the Kwakiutl people – he cracks open people’s skulls with his long straight beak. Dzunukwa, always painted black, is a lady giant who lives in the forest and eats crying children!
Here are two totem poles at Stanley Park, with each figure identified.
Chief Wa’kas Pole by Doug Cranmer
Kakaso’las by Ellen Neel
At the base of the totem pole is Raven (not shown here).
Tip: See if kids can spot identifying characters of the animal. The Killer Whale has a dorsal fin and lots of teeth, Beaver two big teeth and flat tail, Bear pointed teeth and four claws, Raven a long beak that points up or down.
Here are children’s books with stories based on Pacific Northwest myths and art styles, and a guidebook for totem poles you can see in British Columbia and Alaska.
- Raven – A Trickster Tale of the Pacific Northwest by Gerald McDermott.
- When all was the world was in darkness, clever Raven stole the sun and gave it to the people. Raven flies to the shining house of the Sky Chief and tricks him into showing where the ball of light is hidden. Beautifully told, with fabulous illustrations. (Picture book)
- Frog Girl by Paul Owen Lewis.
- The songs of the frogs are silent, but one frog calls to the chief’s daughter to follow her under the lake. There, a house shakes with fire and smoke, and the girl meets Volcano Woman. Gorgeously illustrated. (Picture book)
- Storm Boy by Paul Owen Lewis.
- A storm washes the Haida chief’s son into a strange village, the realm of the killer whale people. Finely dressed people give the boy a blanket to wear, fish to eat, and they dance and feast, until the boy thinks of his own home. This is a gem. (Picture book)
- Looking at Totem Poles by Hilary Stewart.
- Not a children’s book, this is an excellent guide to the 100+ totem poles in British Columbia and Alaska, with background about the Northwest Coast culture, includes detailed descriptions of the totem poles in Stanley Park. (Guidebook)