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Exceptionally carved argillite model totem pole by Haida artist Charles Edenshaw - Donald Ellis Gallery
Profile view of an exceptional argillite totem pole by Charles Edenshaw - Donald Ellis Gallery

Model Totem Pole

attributed to Tahayghen (Charles Edenshaw), 1839-1920
Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

ca. 1890-1910


height: 16 ¾"

Inventory # N4194


acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON


Brown, Steven C., The Spirit Within. New York: Rizzoli, 1995, pl. 52

Brown, Steven C., Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth Through the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998, pg. 114

Totem poles are among the most emblematic artistic traditions of Northwest Coast First Nations peoples. Carved from towering cedar trees as monuments to ancestral lineage and clan history, the manufacture of full-sized totem poles is a lengthy process requiring a skilled and large labour force. Following the decimation of the Indigenous population by the smallpox epidemic in the mid-nineteenth century, the number of artists and wealthy patrons significantly declined. Also impacting traditional ways of life was the new ability for Indigenous people to accumulate wealth through non-traditional occupations in commercial fishing and forestry. In the late 19th century, Indigenous artists began creating small scale model totem poles out of wood and argillite, which could easily be marketed to Euro-Canadian clientele. Charles Edenshaw, also known by his Haida name Tahayghen, was one of the most renowned artists in this new art tradition. In a discussion of his unique ability to interpret early modernity, art historian Kathleen Bunn-Marcuse notes Edenshaw’s ‘combined use of Haida and Euro-Canadian imagery to reveal his exposure to a wealth of images that inspired him and reflected the interests and demands of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences.’ (Bunn-Marcuse 2013, pg. 175) She also relays Edenshaw’s daughter Florence Edenshaw Davidson’s recollection of her father’s varied clientele, noting that he primarily produced bracelets for Haida clientele while gearing argillite carving towards a non-Native audience. (Ibid.) In all likelihood, this superb model totem pole was initially carved for a non-Indigenous patron. Like its full scale counterparts, the pole combines references to clan lineage, family crests, specific mythical episodes, or actual historical and/or recent events. Along with others of its kind, it embodies Haida innovation and the ability to preserve and propagate artistic traditions to the next generation of artists.

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