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Our Global Neighbours: The Kwa-guilth pole

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 05 Sep 2016

The journey of a Western Red Cedar pole of the Kwa-guilth people from British Colombia to the new Museums Discovery Centre in Castle Hill.

The Kwa-guilth pole at the Museums Discovery Centre

The Kwa-guilth pole at the Museums Discovery Centre
Photographer: Abram Powell © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

He carved the kulus – a juvenile thunderbird with wings outstretched at the top. It is a crest of high ranking Kwa-guilth families. He carved with power tools and a steel hand-adze in Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) – a distinct tree on the North West Coast of British Columbia.

“When I make something," says Richard Hunt, "I am claiming the rights to it for myself, and at the same time for our children and all Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwa-guilth) people. They are the ones who really own it.”

But Richard – an accomplished Kwa-guilth artist – sent this impressive nine-metre-high pole to World Expo '88 in Brisbane. It is possible that Westerners’ fascination with what they stubbornly term 'totem poles' met the Kwa-guilth people's aspiration to reassert themselves, their culture and rights. “I believe that what I create is cultural property and it is my job to educate the public about my culture as much as I can to keep it alive,” he says. And he did it superbly through the quality and boldness of his creation, displayed in the Canadian First Nations pavillion at the Expo.

Poles, depicting legendary ancestral figures, have various functions. They may be erected at the front of the houses of notable families, welcome poles at the beach near a village or memorial poles to honour community members or funerary poles. They were an incarnation and an instrument of native philosophy in which ownership of rights was central. The rites need to be displayed and requested; they need to be accepted by larger communal group and their ancestors. And this, I think, is the reason that the Kwa-guilth pole is such a potent symbol, even in far-away land.

After Expo 88, the Kwa-guilth people, with the assistance of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History) in Ottawa, worked on repatriation of two venerated poles and some masks from the Australian Museum collection. This 1912 collection was a result of the ill-feted Red Indian Show enterprise, which brought a group of Kwa-guilth people and some of their authentic ceremonial objects to Australia.

In a complex process of returning ritual objects back to the Kwa-guilth Nation, it was decided to gift Richard’s pole to the Australian Museum. And so this imposing sculpture, which could be seen as a request for recognition of rights, stands as an important reminder of the Kwa-guilth people holding their ground and their customs.

The pole has three major motifs, each reflecting different aspects of the artist's family lineage and personal history. The top motif is an immature Thunderbird with spread wings; the middle motif represents the sun with a hawk-man's face, holding a piece of copper, the symbol of wealth; while the lower motif is a beaver holding a human figure. Traditionally, once raised and dedicated to ceremonial purpose, a pole was left standing undisturbed and allowed to decay and eventually fall.

Departing from this tradition, the pole is now kept at the newly-opened Museums Discovery Centre and will not be allowed to decay, but will stand forever, signifying to visitors that we affirm Richard’s culture and the culture of his people, carved with chainsaw and steel chisels into the Red Cedar’s trunk.