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Making meaning in totemland: investigating a Vancouver commission Phillips, Kimberly Jean

Abstract

In the years immediately following World War II in Vancouver, native Northwest Coast images and objects were frequently made visible in the public spaces of the city, claimed and exchanged physically and symbolically in events involving both aboriginal and non-native participants. Like the political and social relations surrounding them, the meaning and purpose of these objects and images was, arguably, pliable and constantly shifting. The Totemland Pole, commissioned in 1950 by Vancouver's fledgling Totemland Society, and designed by local Kwakwaka'wakw carver Ellen Neel, was one such object-as-symbol. Numerous individuals and communities, aboriginal as well as non-native, were implicated in the object's production. Following anthropologist Anthony Cohen's work on social symbols in The Symbolic Construction of Community, I argue that while the symbol itself was held in common, its meaning varied with its participants' unique orientations to it. The differently motivated parties, specifically the work's creator, Ellen Neel, and its commissioners, the Totemland Society, attributed divergent meaning to the Totemland Pole simultaneously. As Cohen suggests, I propose that this difference did not lead to argument. Rather it was the form of the Totemland Pole itself, its impreciseness or "malleability," within the particular socio-political climate of its production, which enabled these divergent meanings to co-exist. In order to investigate ways in which the Totemland Pole was understood simultaneously as symbolically meaningful, this project attempts to map out the subject positions of and relations of power between Ellen Neel and the members of the Totemland Society, in relation to the particulars of the local historical moment. The forgotten details of the Totemland Commission and the lack of a legitimizing discourse of Neel's production, both fuelled by the gendered, class and race inflected politics of knowledge construction, have necessitated that the concept of absence be fundamental to my project. I have therefore approached the Totemland Commission from a number of surrounding institutional and social discourses, which form trajectories I see as intersecting at the site of the Totemland Pole. Any one of these trajectories may have been taken as the singular approach for the investigation of such an object. However, I wish to deny the autonomy normally granted these discursive fields, emphasizing instead the ways they are interdependent and may operate in tandem to enrich our understanding of an object which was the result of, and relevant to, shared histories.

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