Totem Poles of Victoria BC
Totem poles are one of the most recognizable cultural emblems of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. Each one is a unique work of art, a love poem to the West Coast wilderness and its people.
About the Totem Poles
The poles display animals meticulously hand carved, one on top of the other, into the trunks of trees. Red cedar was the medium of choice for centuries, selected for its malleability, resistance to rotting, and abundance in the temporal rainforests of the West Coast. The poles range in height, from 3 to 20 metres. Victoria boasts one pole that claims to be the tallest totem in the world at 127 feet 7 inches; it towers in Beacon Hill Park, facing the Straight of Juan de Fuca.
Each totem pole documents a story through its art. The animals depicted might represent a family crest or indicate a family’s status. Following First Nations beliefs, each animal has a different meaning. The poles were erected to commemorate families, people, and events, and would serve a ceremonial or even structural purpose, supporting the main beams of the long houses.
Where to See Totem Poles in Victoria
Victoria is proud home to dozens of poles, on display to celebrate the culture of the indigenous people of this region and honour the landscape from which this art was born. What follows are some locations where you can visit totem poles in Victoria.
In 1941, a display of totem poles from the Royal BC Museum was moved outdoors next to the museum to create a public exhibit. The museum hired a master carver to restore the poles, but after years outdoors, the poles started showing sign of wear. They were returned inside the museum. To maintain the exhibit, several carvers created replicas of the poles, which now stand in Thunderbird Park, along with a traditional house. The Royal BC museum offers an interactive website to explore the Park from home or your hotel room, but Thunderbird Park remains a must-see display of totem poles in downtown Victoria.
Price to view: free
Get there: Downtown, at the corner of Belleville and Douglas, beside the Royal BC Museum
Royal BC Museum
The Royal BC Museum houses a large collection of totem poles, including some of the oldest surviving ones in B.C. Some can be viewed through the windows by the gift shop’s east entrance; others stand sentinel the lobby; and others still are on the third floor in the First Peoples exhibits, which include myriad indigenous artifacts found in B.C. The exhibit is superb.
Price to view: Some can be viewed free outdoors; the ones inside are by museum admission
Get there: Downtown, at the corner of Belleville and Douglas, beside the B.C. Legislature on the Inner Harbour.
Beacon Hill Park
Beacon Hill Park is home to the self-proclaimed world’s tallest totem pole, standing at 127 feet, 7 inches. Other poles around the world also claim to be the tallest; regardless, you’ll have to crane your neck to see the top of it and walk a good 50 metres away to capture the whole pole in your camera view. The pole was dedicated in 1954.
Price to view: free
Get there: You can walk to Beacon Hill Park from downtown Victoria. Walk down Quadra out of downtown toward the water. Follow the road through the park, past the petting zoo to the totem pole.
University of Victoria
Several totem poles live as beacons of higher learning on the campus of the University of Victoria. Eagle on Decayed Pole and Raven Soaring stand across from the library in the quad, the green space at the centre of the campus. In 2009, a vandal scaled Eagle on a Decayed Pole and removed two eagles from the top of the pole. In 2011, KwaGulth artist and Hereditary Chief Tony Hunt, who worked under his father on the poles at Thunderbird Park, carved two new eagles to guard the top of the pole. The vandal was never found.
First Peoples House on the campus also boasts a few totem poles, as well as other Indigenous art. The building, designed in the Coast Salish Long House design, is a cultural and academic centre for Indigenous students.
Price to view: free
Get there: The UVic campus is located a 15-minute drive north east from downtown. Get directions.
For an unforgettable celebration of flowers, visiting the world-famous Butchart Gardens is a must on your Victoria bucket list. Since 2004, you can also view two totem poles at the Gardens, located to the right of the spectacular Rose Carousel, by the fireworks field. The poles were erected to commemorate the Gardens’ 100th year in bloom.
Price to view: Admission to the Butchart Gardens
Get there: Located in Brentwood Bay, Butchart Gardens is a 25-minute drive from downtown Victoria. Tours are available leaving from downtown.