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Totem Poles, Kitseukla

Totem Poles, Kitseukla, 1912
oil on canvas
126.8 x 98.4 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Founders' Fund
VAG 37.2
Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

Gitxsan Village of Gitsegukla

Gitxsan Village of Gitsegukla, 1910
Photograph by G.T. Emmons
Royal BC Museum, PN 1234

Blunden Harbour

Blunden Harbour, c.1930
oil on canvas
129.8 x 93.6 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Purchased 1937

Kwakwaka'wakw Village of Ba'a's (Blunden Harbour)

Kwakwaka'wakw Village of Ba'a's (Blunden Harbour), 1901
Photograph by C. F. Newcombe
Royal BC Museum, PN 258

Documenting First Nations Cultures (Grades 5–7)


Students investigate Emily Carr's interpretation of First Nations cultures.

Description of Activity:

Students consider the ways in which the cultural meaning of an object can change when it is interpreted from outside by discussing Emily Carr's paintings of totem poles and by drawing from a photograph.


2 sessions, 60 minutes each

Background Information for Teachers:

The First Nations communities of the Northwest Coast were a major source of inspiration for Emily Carr. She visited many First Nations villages, making her first excursion to Hittats'uu (Ucluelet), part of the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) territories on western Vancouver Island, in 1899. Here Carr developed a keen interest in First Nations cultures, but her visits were brief and she never learned the language of the people she met.

Carr's work representing cultures that were not her own has led some authors to argue that her paintings are more a reflection of her British heritage than documents of First Nations cultures. This point deserves some consideration, as Carr often travelled to abandoned First Nations villages to paint and preferred to focus her attention on totem poles rather than people. She represented totem poles using avant-garde techniques that she learned while studying in France. Geometric shapes and vivid colours abound in her First Nations imagery.

At the same time, it is important to remember that Carr was part of a generation in which many Westerners believed that the First Nations peoples of Canada were disappearing, and that it was her concern for these people that led her to try to document Northwest Coast culture.

To read more about Emily Carr's interpretation of First Nations cultures, click:
Early Work (1893–1910)
Early Totems (1911–1913)
Modernism and Late Totems (1927–1932)

Preparation for Teachers:

Materials for Students:

  • Several pieces of cedar
  • Reproductions of Totem Poles, Kitseukla, 1912, and Blunden Harbour, c.1930.
  • Reproductions of photographs of the totem poles being discussed
  • Personal photograph (provided by teacher)
  • Heavy paper
  • Pencils, pencil crayons, crayons, markers


Part I

  • Introduce students to the totem poles of the First Nations of the Northwest Coast. Describe how totem poles are made while having students pass around a piece of cedar. Point out the various types of poles and note the importance of crest figures.
  • Have students examine Totem Poles, Kitseukla, 1912, and Blunden Harbour, c.1930.
  • Ask students to describe what they see. Have they seen a totem pole "in person"? How does it compare to the totem pole painted by Carr? Discuss.
  • Show students a photograph of the totem pole in Carr's painting. How does the painting compare to the photograph? What does she add or change? Discuss.

Part II

  • Bring in a personal photograph of a place that is special to you.
  • Ask students to draw the place, focusing on what they like most about the photograph.


  • Invite students to share their drawings with the class.
  • Tell students why this is such a special photograph to you, making sure to point out the similarities and differences between how you see the image and how students represented it.
  • Return to Carr's two images. Discuss how Carr's interpretation of these totem poles was not necessarily the same as their carvers', just as the students' interpretations of your photograph were not necessarily the same as yours.

Further Engagement:

  • Have students look at Vanquished, 1930. Discuss Carr's concern about the future of the First Nations people in British Columbia. Ask students to research the status of First Nations peoples during this period, paying particular attention to why someone like Carr would have the impression that Northwest Coast peoples were disappearing.

Appendix: Resource On Totem Poles