Crests and Symbolism of the 2 Wapta Lake Totem Poles:
These 2 fine Nuu chah-nulth, or Nootka poles are carved and painted in a pure hereditary tribal tradition of the West Coast of Vancouver lsland. They represent a valuable record of the precontact era, in particular the early facial paintings, ornaments and dress code.
1.Taller Totem Pole:
An eagle -the painted feathers on the wings are a typical Nootka feature. Next, an ancestral chief with a headdress which is surmounted by a salmon. ln front of the chief’s hair strands, there are 2 square incisions which probably were inlaid with abalone shells to represent ear or hair decorations. The abalone nose ornament is still perfectly preserved. There are red facial paints around eyes and chin. This figure as well as the lower one is wearing a “roman style” otter tunic with one arm and shoulder exposed (Re. sketch of chief Wentuisen Galiano -Valdez Expedition 1792). The figure is holding the head of a “Lightning Snake” with an “Egyptian style eye”. This is the most recognizable feature on any Nootka carving. The warrior figure below is clasping a war club. The handsome feature has red paint around the mouth and chin. The face is framed by heavy hair strands and it is crowned with a bear headdress. The exposed left arm is grasping a killerwhale. Below is a very unusual figure of a gambler who is hiding a roll in his palm which is used in the West Coast guessing game, “Lahall”. Note, the wooden pegs used to fasten the head are protruding. This is an indication that the rest of the pole has naturally shrunken about ½ inch over the year!. Beside the gambler there is a diving salmon and below a seated grizzly with outstretched arms.
2.Lower Totem Pole:
On top is a seated owl. The wings show the characteristic ”Egyptian style eye”. Below there is a grizzly who is tenderly cuddling a seal. Below is the head of “K’aen” or raven. Then there is a large figure of “Bukush” the wild man who is holding the ear of a marmot. Below is another owl with typical Nootka wings: note the uniform feathers with the ”Egyptian” eye on top. Below the wings there are paint traces of a diving duck, which is only barely visible on the pictures. However it is clearly visible on the 1925 photo of the poles standing by the lake. The crest on the bottom is the ever present head of the lightning snake.
The two totem poles were acquired by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to be erected at the south shore of Wapta Lake next to the railway tracks in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. For a number of years they have been a spectacular landmark for railway passengers. (see photo copy) Before the completion of the Spiral Tunnel, there were numerous derailments along the steep section between Wapta Lake and Field. Therefore it became necessary to convert the C.P.R. construction camp on the north shore of Wapta Lake into a refugee camp for stranded passengers. At that time the 2 West Coast Totem Poles were re-erected across the lake at the entrance of Wapta Camp. (see copy of photo) ln the 1930’s the centre of Wapta Camp burned to the ground. However, the 2 Totem poles which stood far enough from the buildings remained unharmed. Soon they had to be removed once again since both totems stood at the very spot where the Trans Canada Highway #1 now runs through. They were then re-erected at either side of the entrance of the newly build Wapta Lake restaurant. ln 2005 the Totem Poles were finally taken down. Considering the age of the poles and the harsh weather conditions they had endured, their condition is still marvellous with only minor damage. This can be credited to the numerous layers of paint which acted as a preservative. The original coat of paint was mainly weathered off before the next layer was added, This is what we observed as we have stripped the multiple layers of paint off, preserving the paint traces of the original layer. This process reveals all the fine incisions of the carver which were all cluttered up by excess oil paint. The tip of the nose of the upper human figure of the 12foot pole was missing. However, it has been recreated beautifully by Northwest Coast carver Andrew Mellsh, a member of the Namgis Nation. The Wapta Poles were carved at a time when people were still being jailed for participating in Potlatches and the carving of totem poles was frowned upon by church and government. The two Totem Poles represent 2fine examples from a difficult transitional time period of the Pacific Northwest Coast culture.