Imagine opening an old shed by the side of the road and finding a 19th-century painting by a master artist. That’s what happened to me recently in the small, indigenous village of Old Massett — except the ancient art was a totem pole, and a master carver, Christian White, led me there.
Haida Gwaii, this cluster of islands 70 miles off the northwest coast of Canada, was once known for its totem poles, tall and regal, like the temples of Angkor Wat.
In 1862, a smallpox epidemic wiped out most of the 10,000 to 30,000 members of the Haida Nation living here. Many of the totem poles that adorned and surrounded their longhouses were carted off by collectors and museum curators. Others were absorbed back into the forest, like this one I came across in the former village site of Yan.
In 1884, the Canadian government outlawed potlatches, the public ceremonies that formed the basis of the Haida legal and political system. Because totem poles were intricately tied to potlatches, the ban essentially spelled the end of poles. The ban was finally lifted, and in 1969 the first new monumental totem pole in almost a century was raised ceremoniously in Haida Gwaii.
Since then, a dozen free-standing poles have gone up around the Haida reserve of Old Massett. The interesting thing about them is that they are not recreations of old poles or commemorative pieces remembering the height of Haida culture. They are modern tributes that recognize recent events, like the inauguration of a new hereditary chief or the opening of a new building.
During my visit to the village, I heard that Mr. White, a well-known argillite carver, was working on a new totem pole — his fifth. When I dropped by his work shed, his son Vernon was chipping away at it.
The pole will be huge — 51 feet long, with an additional 11 feet in the ground. It came from a 600-year-old red cedar that Mr. White picked out. It took him and his team weeks to strip away the bark, flatten one side, hollow out the rot and finally start the carving. That they do with hand tools, like chisels and axes, not much different from what their ancestors used centuries ago.
The Old Massett Village Council commissioned Mr. White to build the pole for a village named Hiellen. He decided to copy many of the images — mostly clan crests — from a pole that was built in 1820 and was at one time attached to a chief’s longhouse in Hiellen. It will take his team of three carvers six months to complete the pole.
Assuming the ancient pole was long gone, I asked Mr. White if the carvers were working from a photo of it. His answer surprised me: They were working off tracings of the original. “It’s in a container,” he said.
He agreed to take me there — to this old wooden shed behind the village’s former school. Its door was held precariously shut with an old nail. Mr. White pried it open using a hammer.
There was the pole — 197 years old, cut or rotted into two long pieces.
I crept inside and gazed in wonder. The detailing was marvelous. I could detect a carving of a face inside a bear’s eye.
I couldn’t help but also marvel at how the old pole was being stored. It spoke to me of many things — the fact that the Haida residents of Old Massett, faced with 70 percent unemployment, have more pressing issues than preserving history, but also a lack of nostalgia for Haida culture, perhaps because people are still living it.
For Mr. White, this ancient pole is a teaching tool. “I’m involved in creating new things,” he said. “Some people say we should let it go back to the earth.”