A Tale of Two Totem Poles (Stewart Park, Richard Hunt and Tim Paul / David Gross, 1979 / 2006)

By Grace Redpath

Coinciding with 250 years since Cook’s birth, the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum opened to the public on October 28th 1978. It’s located in Stewart Park, Middlesbrough, not far from a granite urn that marks the site of the cottage where the contentious navigator was born.

The Original Totem Pole (1979)

In 1979, Canadian First Nations artists Richard Hunt (member of the Kwag’l Nation) and Tim Paul (member of Nuu-cha-nulth Nation) carved a 15-foot totem pole for the museum. Commissioned by the Government and people of British Columbia, the piece commemorates the 200th anniversary of Cook arriving in Nootka, just off Vancouver Island in North West Canada. Notably, Cook commented in his journal from this voyage about the experience of viewing the wooden carvings by the Nootka people, and engravings were made by John Webber (Cook’s artist on the voyage) depicting the carved idols (Ackweeks) featured in First Nations houses. 

The Inside of a House in Nootka Sound (1778) by John Webber. Image courtesy of RMG.

Traditionally, the carvings on totem poles depict ancestral stories and rights. The craft is taught within First Nations families through passing down the skill, generation to generation. Richard Hunt learnt carving from his father, Henry and brother Tony, who were the principle carvers at the renowned Royal British Columbia Museum’s Thunderbird Park in Victoria. After taking over this role, Richard met Tim Paul in 1977 on the carving program.

Work on the original totem pole (Image: Captain Cook Birthplace Museum)

The three figures carved into this totem pole from top to bottom are: a Thunderbird, a bear, and a man. The Thunderbird is a mythical creature within many First Nations cultures; it protects and symbolises strength. This bear carving also holds great significance as it is said to have featured on a totem pole in the village of Ehattesaht, North West Vancouver Island, which Cook visited during his voyage. The pole was carved and painted in 1978, before being installed the following year.

It is thought that the tree trunk that Hunt and Paul used to as practice for the piece now sits in at Tees Valley Wildlife Trust Margrove Park Nature Reserve.

This tree trunk is thought to be the one Hunt and Paul practiced on before carving their final totem pole. (Image: James Beighton)

The Community Totem Pole (2006)

Carved from a Corsican Pine that had fallen in Stewart Park, the Community Totem Pole was a collaborative project created in 2006 by David Gross, who worked with the E2E group from Manor Youth Centre and a group of adult learners from Coulby Newham to create the piece. Invited by the museum’s Learning Officer, Jenny Phillips, the aim of the project was to learn ‘hands on’ about the skill of totem pole carving and the significance they hold within the cultures that make them. The Corsican Pine – a softwood – was harder to carve than David had imagined, but the work was completed and installed later in the year.

The two totem poles at Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Middlesbrough. (Image: Doug Moody from the Northern Echo, 26th October 2017)

Although totem poles convey memories and events of the cultures they belong to, the animals carved on the Community Totem Pole were selected by the participants on this project. Together they decided that the work would not tell a story, but rather be open to the viewer to interpret. From top to bottom, a bear with a salmon, an octopus, and a frog with wings are depicted, and once it was completed the group carved their initials onto the back of the pole.  

The Community Totem Pole (Image: Grace Redpath)

In 2017, a competition was held involving local primary schools to choose a new colour scheme for the Community Totem Pole. Two winners – Hannah Wells and Phoebe Parnham – were chosen, and half of each of their designs were used. At the same time, Gross restored the colours of the crest and claws of the 1979 totem pole, which had become faded. 

Now, totem poles and museums have a long and complex history affiliated with colonialism. One solution to acknowledging their cultural significance to First Nations people has been to have First Nations carvers recreate and reinterpret totem poles for new audiences. This practice assists and paves the way for questioning past anthropological displays of totem poles in museums, which have appropriated facts and meanings. Reinterpretation highlights their value and informs our knowledge and Richard Hunt and Tim Paul’s totem pole in Stewart Park demonstrates this. It acts to develop our understanding of indigenous people’s beliefs and practices as well as situating their place within history.

The Marton Moai (Image: Grace Redpath)

Despite demonstrating the artistic practice of wood carving, the community totem pole is a little more problematic. In many eyes, it might be deemed cultural appropriation due to the spiritual significance of totem poles not being honoured by First Nations carvers. However, in 2006 whilst working on the community totem pole, David began a collaboration with Maori artist George Nuku. This would lead to a two-year project and the creation of The Marton Moai (named, Tutira – ‘The Lookout’) at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. The Moai became one of many ‘Niu Treasures’ within the museum collection that built a bridge between the past (Cook’s eighteenth-century view of the world) and the culture of Pacific peoples. The rest of this is a story for another day but if you would like some further reading around totem poles please find attached a couple of personally recommended links around conservation and engagement:

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