Prominently displayed on the north face of the Douglas T. Kenny building, home of the UBC Department of Psychology, stands a magnificent totem pole.
The Whaler's Pole is steeped in the rich cultural styles and traditions of the Nuu-chah-nulth people (nuučaan̓uł, meaning "all along the mountains").
Despite the pole’s current weathered appearance, this innovative work of art holds special significance for its depiction of an ancient Nuu-chah-nulth practice—the whale hunt–and as an embodiment of the compelling legacy left by the artist, the late Arthur Thompson (1948-2003) of the Ditidaht and Cowichan First Nations.
Thompson, an internationally celebrated artist and leader, was instrumental in the fight for justice for Indian residential school survivors.
A survivor himself, he spent nine abusive years in the Alberni Indian Residential School until he ran away at age 13. He was determined to provide survivors with a voice and successfully sued Canada and the United Church for the abuse he suffered at the school. During the trial, he directly faced one of his abusers dressed in ceremonial regalia.
The information that came to light during his widely publicized lawsuit contributed to a movement that eventually resulted in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2006. The agreement ended the largest class-action suit in Canadian history. It included a federal apology, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and financial compensation to former students, among other things.
Despite his painful experiences, he went on to create countless works of astonishing beauty. The Whaler’s Pole is one such work, which was originally created to fulfill a commission by the Museum of Anthropology before its installation at the Kenny building in 1984, at the behest of the Department of Psychology, after two years in storage.
When asked about his motivation for creating the piece, Thompson said, “I carved the pole for all Nuu-chah-nulth people, and for their ancient whaling tradition.”
The figures depicted in the Whaler’s Pole, from top to bottom include:
A high-ranking chief holds in his hands the tips of the dorsal fins from two whales, and in this context appears to have taken two whales.
His responsibilities include the retrieval of the harpoon; as such, he is shown here holding it.
A Hawk headdress indicates his high rank; he holds a baleen rattle in his left hand and a magical wand in his right.
The Lightning Snake emanating from his mouth symbolizes his strong inner powers.
Washed ashore with pale skin and pursed lips, the reincarnation of a drowned crewmember who had reached complete purification.
Set with its head down with an incorporated wave design that symbolizes the shore.
Red in the blowhole indicates the target of the spears.
At a celebration of the restoration of another of Thompson’s poles, his nephew, Derek Thompson, remembered him:
“He had a presence, a voice and he told us to never forget who we are.”
The Whaler’s Pole proudly stands as a testament to this appeal, acting as a beautiful reminder to the UBC community of the living, rich, cultural significance of the Nuu-chah-nulth.
It also symbolizes the artist’s strength to overcome the abusive childhood he experienced at the residential school.
“The pole is evidence of Art's survival and of his determination to carry forward the culture that the schools sought to extinguish,” Professor Linc Kesler, former director of the First Nations House of Learning, said:
"Assuring that his story, and others like it, are remembered and better understood is part of the reason that the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre has been established at UBC, which everyone is encouraged to visit to learn more."
In addition to UBC, Thompson's works are included in many public collections, including the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the Canadian High Commission in Singapore, and Stanford University in the United States.
Editor's Note: In November 2018, the Whaler’s Pole was relocated to the Museum of Anthropology where it will undergo restoration and will be displayed as part of its permanent collection.
Indigenous Art Series: Find out where you can view Indigenous art on campus and the story behind each piece by checking out this interactive map.