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Skidegate, 1912
oil on card mounted on board
65.6 x 35.8 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust
VAG 42.3.46
Photo: Robert Keziere, Vancouver Art Gallery

Blunden Harbour

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

Representing First Nations Cultures


Students consider Emily Carr's interest in First Nations cultures of the Northwest Coast.

Description of Activity:

Students study Carr's rather complicated relationship with the First Nations people of British Columbia, while developing listening and oral communication skills.


1 session, 60 minutes
Independent research time

Background Information for Teachers:

In 1889, Carr went to the village of Hittats'uu (Ucluelet) on the west coast of Vancouver Island to visit her older sister Lizzie, who was living there as a missionary. Her stay in Hittats'uu was brief, but the sketches she produced during her journey reveal an interest in the people and their culture. This interest led Carr to visit other First Nations communities in the years that followed.

Like many people of European descent living in Canada in the early twentieth century, Carr believed that the Northwest Coast Nations were in danger of disappearing with the pressure of European settlement into the region. Consequently, she wanted to document aspects of coastal First Nations cultures, especially the totem poles, before they were gone. The question of Carr's intention in depicting these cultures has prompted heated debates in recent years. Some scholars argue that Carr used European ideas and techniques to portray a culture that was not her own. Others claim that Carr was one of the few Western artists in this period to treat First Nations culture as a subject worthy of representation.

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 (1927–32)

Preparation for Teachers:

Materials for Students:


Part I

  • Ask students to bring in any information they can find about totem poles, including postcards, tourist brochures and items from the Internet.
  • Write the following questions on the flip chart and work with students to answer them, using the information they have discovered and the resource material on totem poles in the Appendix:
    • What is a totem pole?
    • How are the poles created?
    • What material are they made of?
    • What are some of the functions of a totem pole?
    • Where have you seen totem poles? (museums, airports, parks, tourist brochures, telephone book cover, etc.)
    • Are totem poles still made today?

Part II

  • Show students reproductions of Skidegate, 1912, and Blunden Harbour, c.1930.
  • Have them describe what they see. What is the main subject of the painting? Where is the painting set? What other elements are important to the composition?
  • Invite students to share what they have learned about totem poles, and have them discuss how this information relates to the totem poles depicted by Emily Carr.


  • Summarize what students have learned about totem poles. Discuss the fact that Emily Carr was inspired by First Nations culture and artifacts like totem poles, though she was not of First Nations ancestry herself. Reiterate that her work represents her perception of the totem poles she encountered on her journeys.

Further Engagement:

  • Students can research the First Nations peoples of British Columbia online. Assign each student one of the following nations, whose villages Emily Carr visited in her travels: Coast Salish; St'át'imc; Nlaka'pamux; Nuu-chah-nulth; Tlingit; Kwakwaka'wakw; Gitxsan; Wet'suwet'en; Nisga'a; Haida. Have students present their findings to the class.

Appendix: resource on totem poles