Sealaska Heritage

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The raising of the totem pole raising in Massett in 1969

The renowned master artist Robert Davidson sometimes submits pieces for SHI's blog. This month, news of a new documentary on a totem pole raising in Old Massett in 1969 came out. The film, Now is the Time, explores the raising of a pole carved by Davidson and his brother, Reg. Robert wrote this blog to provide some more contextRobert also talked about this project at a lecture sponsored by SHI. 

With the release of Now is the Time, I wanted to take the opportunity to provide some context for the story of the pole raising that took place in Massett on August 22, 1969.

For several decades, Massett did not have any totem poles or art because of the restrictions from Canadian laws under the Indian Act, which was first passed in 1876. This Act was later amended to outlaw us from practicing our ceremonies, including our songs and our dances. 

It has been 50 years since my brother, Reg, and I carved the totem pole for Massett. My family, including my parents, Claude and Vivian, Naanii Florence and Tsinii Robert, and Susan, was tremendously supportive throughout that time. My uncles, Alfred Davidson, Sam Davis, and Victor Adams, my aunties, and many Elders provided me guidance for the project and the celebration on the day of the pole raising.

Dad, of his own free will, walked the forest for two weeks looking for a suitable tree. Mom and Susan gave unending support throughout the summer. Audrey Hawthorn, then Curator of the UBC Museum, applied for and received a $3,000 cultural grant for this project. Naanii and Tsinii provided endless guidance and support and opened their home to host numerous meetings with the Elders to discuss history and what was involved in raising a totem pole. All of the preparation and consultation with the Elders took place during the summer at those meetings. Song and dance practices were held after the meetings, and Naanii even demonstrated one of the dances with a brown paper bag with holes cut out for her eyes because we had no masks. It was truly a spiritual experience seeing all the joy expressed through the Elders’ singing and dancing – these Elders who were all 70 years old and over. After school was out Reg helped to carve. Even though it was the first time he had ever carved, it was as if he had carved before. We worked 10-12 hours a day, six days a week most weeks.

The idea to carve and raise the totem pole in Massett was inspired by my friendship with the  Elders of the day. When I moved to Vancouver, I saw the great art of my ancestors. Then I came home and saw no art in the village, because we had been muted and outlawed from practicing our ceremonies and way of life. I also sensed a feeling of sadness from the Elders, and I wanted to create a reason for them to celebrate one more time in a way they knew how. This motivated me to commit to carving the totem pole. There was never a question or doubt from my parents or grandparents that this could be accomplished.

The sun shone brightly on the day of the totem pole raising. It was like magic. The pole was raised as if it was an everyday event. We were all guided by a power greater than ourselves. Tsinii helped Dad to give direction to the pole pullers. After the totem pole was raised, people spontaneously began to sing and dance around the totem pole. Many of the Haida wore paper headpieces, and there were only two drums, one was a toy drum that my tsinii used. It was a celebration – a rebirth – and we were able to reconnect with our spirituality once more. Many Haida from Skidegate and Hydaburg and yaads xaadee from out of town came to witness the pole raising and be part of the celebration.

That evening a potlatch was held in the community hall that was co-sponsored by the Massett Band Council and the Davidson family.