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History of Totem Poles in Canada

Archeological evidence suggests that the northern peoples of the West Coast were among the first to create totem poles before the arrival of Europeans. The practice then spread south along the coast into the rest of British Columbia and Washington state.

For many years in the history of British Columbia, the presence of totem poles in the province came under threat by non-Aboriginal settlers who predominantly viewed the poles as paganistic, and an impediment to colonial efforts to Christianize and “civilize” First Nations people. Colonial officials attempted to assimilate Aboriginal peoples by banning cultural expressions and practices, such as the potlatch in 1884, based on the expectation that Aboriginal peoples would then adopt Christian traditions. Much of this discriminatory legislation was not repealed until 1951, although the relocation and repatriation of stolen materials is ongoing.

The world's tallest totem is located at Alert Bay, British Columbia. It is 52.7 metres (172 feet) tall. The totem pole was built from two sections, one 163 feet tall and the other 10 feet. Carved during the 1960s, it was raised in 1973. At the time it was an impressive 53 metres in height, but in November of 2007 the top of the totem pole fell to the ground during a Nimpkish wind. The figures include the Sun Man, a whale, an old man, a wolf, the Thunderbird and its cousin, The carvings were created by several artists and they represent the various tribes of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations.

Because it has two sections, some argue that it is not tallest. Instead, the totem pole located in Kalama, Washington with a height of 140 feet and in one solid length of wood, is the longest. However because it was not carved by an indigenous artisans, some do not count it as a proper totem pole either.

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