Local artist treats students to Haida Gwaii cultural lesson

For the last eight years, Jack Olson has specialized in building custom-made totem poles.

Jack Olson provided a comprehensive overview of the Haida Gwaii culture to the students during a tour through his backyard workshop.

Jack Olson provided a comprehensive overview of the Haida Gwaii culture to the students during a tour through his backyard workshop.

Jack Olson grasped a small wooden handle and watched patiently as the metal blade on the opposite end of the hand carving tool gently cut into a 24’ x 2’ cedar log.

The face of a raven emerged amidst a cohort of animals that signify creation for the coastal indigenous people on Haida Gwaii.

Twenty Grade 3 and 4 students from Windermere Elementary School huddled around the primitive sculpture, rubbing their fingers gently against the the unfinished cedar log and asking Mr. Olson questions about the project at rapid speed.

“I’ve completed a number of totem poles now,” he explained to the crowd of excited children.

Mr. Olson began carving roughly 15 years ago and, eight years ago, he began specializing in building custom-made totem poles as an exhibiting artist.

“My son lives in Victoria so I go and visit him all the time,” he said. “That was one of the reasons. The (totem) poles are downtown and he lives really close by.”

Mr. Olson believes his childhood roots have also influenced his decision to learn about First Nation arts and culture.

“I was born and raised on the coast, so I lived among the poles until I was about 16,” said Mr. Olson. “I never realized how it influenced me until later. It came back to me in my later years, and when it did, I went around to find a master Haida carver (who) would give me some workshops to learn how to do everything and I just went from there.”

Totem poles communicate cultural beliefs and values with symbols and figures carved onto poles, posts and pillars.

The images commonly represent characters or events in a story that revisit familiar legends, clan lineages or notable events.

Mr. Olson might not be of Haida Gwaii heritage, but he has ties to the Metis nation.

“My grandmother was French-Metis,” he said, noting the connection remains near and dear to his heart.

The Windermere Elementary students, who are currently studying the Haida Gwaii at school, were eager to make comparisons between the painted totem poles and the one Mr. Olson was working on during their field trip.

He was impressed by their reactions and spent time answering questions patiently.

“My neighbour’s children (came) over and saw the totem poles,” he said with a smile. “They thought it would be a great idea for the school to come down and have a look at my work  because they’re studying Haida Gwaii right now. It relates to the totem poles really well and a lot of them really know the stories and myths of the Haida, so it’s great that they can come to see the stories on the totem poles.”