“If there’s one thing that I want you to come away with from my presentation today, it’s that we do not worship totems”, stated Fred Olsen, Jr. , a native Haida of Kasaan. In front of us, the one of the totems from Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House stood proud among towering spruce trees. This house pole was among several totems at the Kasaan Totem Park to be rescued and preserved in this still grove of evergreens. Like the other Haida poles in the park, this one was moved from the village site of “old Kasaan” and moved into the totem park in 1938. The ornate carvings of these original totem poles, represented the status and rich history of each clan house or the story to honor a deceased elder.
The effort and time to carve a totem is not lightly undertaken and only occurred for special events. As we walked from Chief Son-I-Hat’s totem to the next shorter totem, Fred began to explain some of the reasons totems would differ in size or purpose. Totems could be carved in honor of a deceased elder, to demonstrate the rights that a person acquired over their lifetime, or to symbolize the generosity of a person who sponsored a Potlatch. As Fred explained, Haida culture was not concerned with the amount you owned, but rather in your generosity in giving back. Hosting a Potlatch required a tremendous amount of resources, planning, and leadership. A successful potlatch could last for several days, earn you the respect of your community, and at its conclusion a ring could be added to the top of your house’s totem. An extraordinary demonstration of this generosity was visible in eight rings at the top Chief Son-I-Hat’s pole. The eight rings symbolized that his house had hosted eight potlatches. Because the rings showed off the status and generosity of Chief Son-I-Hat, they ensured that incoming travelers and traders would seek him out first among the community. The furs he gained through their business contributed his status as one of the wealthiest of the Haida chiefs.
For the Kasaan Totem Park, which winds nearly a half-mile through an incredible and vibrant forest, the journey is also the destination. The totem trail concludes at a cobbly beach with distant views of the mountains. On its shores are the bleached remains of spruce trees and boulders. Near the shore a seemingly impossibly-tall totem rises rises from the ground in front of the Kasaan Whale House. What we now call the “Whale House” was built in 1880 and was named ” Náay I´waans” (meaning “Great House”). This was the first of two clan houses built by Chief Son-I-Hat. The Whale House underwent a full restoration starting in 2011, the results of which are truly remarkable. Inside and insulated by its thick, wooden structure, is is much cooler than the warm day outside. It smells earthy and wonderful. Light streaming from an open roof vent streams onto the floor where it is easy to imagine hundreds of Haida gathering to listen to the stories of their elders and smoke rising from the fire in the central pit. Listening to Fred’s words fill the space provided a meaningful end to a day of serenity in this beautiful place.
It should be noted that I’m not an expert or knowledge base on Haida Culture; all that I can pass on is what I’m told or what I read. It was actually Fred’s opening words in front of Son-I-Hat’s house totem that inspired me to write this blog because it was new knowledge to my limited understanding of Haida culture. I’ll paraphrase them as, “Our totems are not our religion, but our stories and our culture. It’s that message that I wish everyone knew”. If there’s nothing else you know of totems, I hope that Fred’s words will stick in your mind, so that you will have learned that even without visiting this incredible monument of the Haida culture.