Totem poles are well known as a ubiquitous part of Haida Gwaii artwork, but the traditional wooden sculptures were only reclaimed as part of the island’s culture a half a century ago.
“As artists, we are still trying to reconstruct the language we had built and to fully understand it again,” says Christopher Auchter, a Haida filmmaker who retold the story in 2019 as the short film, Now Is the Time.
Upon the arrival of Christian missionaries at Haida Gwaii in the 19th Century, villagers of Masset were told that it was necessary to take their totem poles down in order to be able to get into heaven.
“The religious aspect was very confusing for the Haida people, not knowing what to believe or whom to believe,” Auchter says.
While growing up on the island, he was always familiar with the statue, but it wasn’t until recently that he learned of its significance: in 1969, it was the first totem pole erected in Masset in over a century. Auchter rediscovered the story by interviewing community members who were involved in the ceremony, while combining new shots with archival footage that was very sharp and colourful for its age.
After multiple generations were deprived of learning the craft, reviving the practice after such a long period was a challenge. The elders of the day met numerous times to reconstruct the traditional practice, based largely on their collective memories.
“They started having these evening meetings where they would sit around, and each person would pitch in,” he says.
As the tradition was being reconstructed mostly by elders of 1969, they were passing that ancient knowledge and craftsmanship on to their children and grandchildren.
“Designs within totem poles might seem quite abstract but there is a lot of content in there. There is so much that this design style conveys for us – it’s our stories,” he says.
Connecting the art to the ceremony
Now Is the Time reflects upon villagers who were in their youth during the project discovering why it’s important to embrace the traditional methods of constructing a totem pole. The community had the option of lifting the massive wooden sculpture by using a crane, but that was swiftly rejected. It was instead lifted with the combined efforts of each individual.
“I think it speaks to our relationship that connects the ceremony and the art,” Auchter says. “Rather than having the machine do the heavy lifting, it’s about having the relationship of lifting the pole up by your own hands, your own power, the power of everybody in the community. You need everybody pulling and contributing. Not one person would be able to pull that pole up by themselves.”
Although Now Is the Time focuses on the specific region, culture and population of Haida Gwaii, it has been captivating international audiences since its release last year. The film premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and was then screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where only 72 films were chosen out of more than 10,000 submissions.
“An elderly mother and her sons came up to me and said, ‘You’re the one who did the totem pole movie,’” he says.
“We had a discussion for about a half-hour, and that was a very rewarding moment for me – to understand this film would have an impact on this woman and her children, despite not being Haida but of another indigenous culture, and the film still spoke to them.”
In honour of National Aboriginal Day, the National Film Board will be streaming Now Is the Time for free on its website beginning June 21.