Skip to content

Squamish Nation artist carves magnificent totem pole on trunk of living tree (PHOTOS)

'This was the very first tree I ever carved while its root system is still growing in Mother Earth'

Standing just over six metres high in the backyard of a North Vancouver home is a colourful totem pole.

But this totem pole is a little different from others seen around the North Shore – It has been alive through the entire carving process.

Darren Yelton, the Squamish Nation artist who created the piece, said in his five decades of carving, he’d never done anything quite like this before.

“This was the very first tree I ever carved while its root system is still growing in Mother Earth,” he explained.

Yelton was asked to carve the totem pole by North Vancouver resident George Sim. A tree on Sim’s property, on Caplilano Road, was leaning towards his neighbour's house and he was worried it might fall, so he decided to cut it down, leaving six metres of the tree’s trunk still standing.

Yelton said the project came about after he had completed carving a totem pole for Mio, a small coastal town in Wakayama, Japan, with strong Canadian connections. He was commissioned to create the marker for the town to honour Gihei Kuno, a carpenter who saved the impoverished fishing village by immigrating to Steveston.

He had worked with Sammy Takahashi on the project, about three months ago, who was coincidentally also good friends with Sim, explained Yelton. When Takahashi heard about the tree having to be cut down, he thought of George to carve something into the remaining trunk.

When asked by Sim to carve the trunk, Yelton said he was more than happy to take on the challenging commission.

“It was such an exhilarating project,” he said. “I had a lot of fun carving it.”

Usually, a totem pole or welcome figure is carved into a log that’s lying down. In this scenario, Yelton had to come up with new ways to carve the tree.

“We had a 20-foot (six-metre) scaffold around the totem,” he said. “I usually carve the pole [when it’s] lying down, so it was a challenge carving it upright. Sometimes I was carving upside down and lying down.”

He said it took about a month to carve the totem pole from start to finish. 

“I was carving on it every day for the past month [June],” Yelton said. Sometimes four hours a day. Sometimes eight hours a day.”

Yelton added that Sim also contributed to the project here and there, learning about the process of carving and helping to sand and paint the totem pole.

“I allowed George, the owner of the house, to put the first paintbrush to the totem pole,” he said. So, he has something to remember of this totem pole that was being made in his backyard.”

The traditional monuments – which differ from welcome figures – are carved by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people, or events.

The now complete totem pole in Sim’s backyard features a Coast Salish design of a bald eagle capturing a Chinook salmon. On the chest of the eagle, is the welcome man and on the legs of the eagle are the welcome man’s hands.

“The design is more or less symbols of power and prestige for the eagle,” he said. “Then below is the Chinook salmon which represents the circle of life. A lot of people don't know this, but the salmon goes through seven different cycles to become a mature salmon. The Chinook salmon run up Capilano River and George wanted a Chinook salmon on it because he lives right beside the river.”

Yelton said he chose the welcome man because Sim has Japanese exchange students that stay at his home.

“On the welcome man's hands is the symbol of the maple leaf flag and the symbol of the Japanese flag, the rising sun,” Yelton shared.

“These were added at the last minute as North Vancouver is also the sister city of Chiba, Japan.”

In usual circumstances, Yelton explained that the cedar log is asleep when it is carved and awakened when it is complete as a totem pole.

“The reason why we have a ceremony is to wake the tree back up and stand it for its next journey in its new life,” he said, adding that as this tree is still alive, instead of an awakening ceremony, they held a blessing ceremony.

“Now the pole is complete in his yard, and it looks very beautiful at the back of his deck.”

Yelton follows in the footsteps of his father who was a carver before him, along with his two brothers who also carve. He has done numerous projects for the City of North Vancouver and has also worked with School District 44 for many years, sharing his knowledge of traditional carving and Squamish culture with students.

He hopes to be able to venture to Mio, Wakayama, Japan, early next year for an unveiling of the totem pole he created in honour of Gihei Kuno.

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.