An old gift is once again new.
A totem pole carved by the late Tsimshian hereditary chief William Jeffrey that the British Columbia government gifted to the Yukon in 1971 has been restored and reinstalled, its colours and shapes returned to their original vibrancy and sharpness.
A project three years in the making, the restored pole was unveiled outside the Yukon government’s legislative assembly building the morning of June 21 — National Indigenous Peoples Day — during an event that was imbued with song, dance and ceremony.
Members of Jeffrey’s family, some of whom had travelled from British Columbia for the occasion, were among the dozens in attendance.
“It does my heart proud to see this,” Monica Jeffrey, William Jeffrey’s granddaughter, told the the crowd.
Monica’s daughter, Sarah, said she was proud, too. She had travelled to Whitehorse on behalf of her grandmother, Alice — William Jeffrey’s daughter — after Alice was unable to attend the ceremony herself, and performed an eagle down dance to cleanse the site.
“It was a part of my great-grandfather’s wishes that we share our teachings and it’s also part of my grandmother’s wishes, which is why she sent me here on her behalf,” Sarah said. “So we came here to trade …. We came to trade our teachings, trade our good feelings and our gifts, and that’s why we’re here today.”
Originally known as the BC Centennial Totem Pole, the monument, carved out of red cedar, features four figures representing the principal crests of four Tsimshian clans — Eagle, Wolf, Raven and Grizzly Bear.
The British Columbia government had gifted it to the Yukon as part of its celebrations to mark 100 years since the province joined the Confederation, during which it gifted each of Canada’s provinces and territories a totem pole.
The monument stood outside Whitehorse’s old public library on Second Avenue from its installation in July 1971 until July 2016, when it was lowered during a small ceremony so that the Yukon government’s restoration project, with the blessing of Jeffrey’s family, could begin.
The restoration of totem poles is a fairly contemporary practice; traditionally, they were left to naturally deteriorate with the passage of time and exposure to the elements. However, Monica said, her grandfather was a firm believer in the revitalization of culture, and because of that, her family has been supporting the restoration and preservation of his work.
“This is not a decision by all First Nations,” she explained. “This is just a decision on behalf of our family regarding this pole, and a term that I’ve come up with my journey here, the one word … (is) reconnections. We are reconnecting some old ties and some old partnerships and old collaborations.”
“I’m very, very fortunate I have a grandfather that kept the traditions alive, that survived residential school, that survived the potlatch ban and survived many, many, many things that should have hardened our people,” she added. “… He was a very substantial person and he took it into the art form right until he died, so really, thank you Grandpa.”
Garnet Muething, an art curator with the Yukon government’s Department of Tourism and Culture, said the restoration project has been a “long journey” for everyone involved, and one that relied heavily on the knowledge and guidance of the Jeffrey family as well as a planning committee consisting of conservators, carvers and Yukon First Nations advisors.
“As the recipient of this totem pole, the Government of Yukon is committed to caring for it on behalf of all of the people of Yukon, and over the years many people have contributed to its care. But part of the role of being caretakers of a cultural piece and an artwork are to be able to tell and to share its story and to care for it in a way that honours the vision of the artist,” Muething told the audience.
“I was so happy to be able to contact Monica Jeffrey and to reach out to the family and … when I spoke to them, we actually found out that the Jeffrey family was not only supportive of restoration of totem poles but had actually been undertaking it themselves with totem poles in their community, so we were reassured that this was the right thing to do.”
The restoration itself was a “very involved process,” Muething continued, and involved stripping away the totem pole’s old and damaged paint, which, due to the era it came from, contained lead; repairing surface damage to the wood; and then re-painting it with colours that matched the original.
The work was done under the guidance of conservator Andrew Todd, whom Muething described as “the lead totem pole conservator in Canada,” and the assistance of Carcross/Tagish First Nation carvers Keith Wolfe Smarch and Aaron Smarch.
Along with its physical transformation, the Jeffrey family also bestowed the totem pole a new, traditional Tsimshian name — Gawagani Pts’aan, meaning “Peace Totem Pole.”
“This totem pole’s story began with a gift and a relationship that was formed, and we feel that through this project, we’ve renewed and revitalized that relationship with this new collaboration that we’ve all been part of,“ Muething said.
“…It’s been a process that has allowed all of us to open our minds to new possibilities and to work together to determine the best way to honour the past, to celebrate together in the present and to look towards the future.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org