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Totem Talk

Marianne Garrah has barked up this ancient cedar before, when the pole was being assessed for stabilizing work. It was two years ago when she wondered aloud if instead of using screws and glue to ensure the totem pole doesn’t become a public safety hazard, Parks Canada couldn’t look into the idea of bringing it down and laying it to rest, then getting a new one – as per the traditions of the Haida First Nation who apparently built it.

“The most important issue is that of proper handling of a Haida pole …. [It’s] time for it to rest … on its original island,” she wrote back in 2004. 

An admittedly ambitious plan, Garrah knows, but it’s made even more so because the back story on exactly how the totem pole came to Jasper is a bit of a mystery. Records as to who built it are murky at best – all indication points to Chief Simeon Stilta, a Haida pole carver in the early 1900s – but the real uncertainty lies in how transfer of ownership occurred. It’s known that it was brought here on a Grand Trunk Pacific railway rail car in 1913, but was it purchased? Given as a gift? Possibly stolen?

Amber Pastoor of Parks Canada’s communications department says it’s these unanswered questions that make it very tricky for Parks to take some sort of action on what to do with the totem pole. It’s not as easy as it might sound to repatriate a totem pole, Pastoor said, and in this case, it’s made more difficult because there has yet to be a family to come forward and take responsibility for the totem pole.

“It’s not so easy to send back,” Pastoor said. “Where do you begin the process? Who do you involve?”

Pastoor said Parks Canada knows that whichever direction the process takes, it will involve a broad range of consultation with the community so that all options can be considered.

“For now we see it as an important cultural resource … we recognize the cultural value and want to make sure we keep it healthy.”

That has meant removing the top of the 36-foot tall structure and re-sealing the wood so that water can’t get into it. Taking the beak off of the raven-like top portion and refitting it is a proactive measure to make sure it doesn’t get to the point where it’s in danger of toppling over, Pastoor said.

“No painting work was done, we’re making sure it’s not in danger of falling over,” she said.

Garrah disagrees with the idea of ‘updating’ the spiritually-significant totem. “If it was a Renoir or a Van Gogh the thought of sticking some tape and glue on it would be unthinkable … as it should be with this pole,” her letter continued.

Mike Dillon, cultural and resource specialist for Parks Canada, knows that questions about what to do with the pole are numerous and he also knows that because of its hard-to-trace past those questions will require a concerted effort to answer. However, as Pastoor also pointed out, it’s an issue that the Park won’t be looking to tackle until after the Centennial year (2007) is over, he said.

“The timing has to be right,” Pastoor said. “It’s a fairly complicated and sensitive issue. Many different stakeholders are going to need to be involved in the discussion.”

“You can draw an interesting parallel with the Lobstick tree,” Dillon continued. Lobsticks, trees that had their branches stripped by Native Americans, fur traders and prospectors to signify landmarks or talismans, come with their own questions of what to do with them in modern times, Dillon said. Jasper’s most prominent Lobstick, which sits on the bank of the Athabasca River across from the town’s cemetery, is 130-years old, dead, and leans precariously over the water. If it’s left alone, it will fall and likely be swept away by the current, so the questions Dillon and others concerned with preserving and documenting Jasper’s history ask themselves are ‘should we let it fall?’ ‘Should we ease it down gently?’ ‘Should we brace it with stabilizing anchors and cables,?’ Or ‘should we build a new one?’

Mike Wasuita has tasked himself, for his contribution to Jasper National Park’s Centennial celebrations, with finding an answer to these questions. He’s likely going to take the route that was taken with another famous wooden structure in Alberta — The Burmis Tree near Crowsnest Pass. There, braces and metal poles prop up the 300-year-old relic.

In ’04 Garrah suggested the wheels be put in motion so that Jasper’s totem pole process could be started in time for Centennial celebrations. Pastoor reiterated it’s not so simple.

“It’s not so simple as having one person come forward and say I think Parks Canada should do this,” she said. “When we start that process, we need to make sure the timing is right so we can be in a position where we can move forward.”

Asked when Parks will know when the timing is right, Pastoor couldn’t necessarily say. “I don’t know the answer to that one,” she said.

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