For indigenous peoples in North America, totem poles are one of the ways they preserve their history, telling the stories of their ancestors, people and events. A totem pole standing on Auckland’s North Shore, nearly 12,000 kilometres away from where it originated in British Columbia, symbolises a friendship between two indigenous nations that has now lasted over 30 years, writes Karanama Ruru.
The year was 1990, and Tāmaki Makaurau was getting ready to host the 14th Commonwealth Games. That year, New Zealand had three prime ministers: Labour’s Geoffrey Palmer, followed by Michael Moore, who was only in the job just shy of two months before he was ousted by National’s Jim Bolger. On the music scene artists like Margret Urlich,The B-52’s, Cher and Milli Vanilli dominated the New Zealand airwaves.
For Māori, the 150th anniversary of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi was remembered in February. It brought tension, heartbreak and pain, as Māori continued to call on the Crown to honour the treaty. Through the successive leaders, music, and tensions of the early 90s, a friendship would be born that has continued to this day.
Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei kaumatua Alec Hawke said the friendship between British Columbia Indigenous Canadians and Māori was a long and storied one. “In 1990, Auckland City and the North Shore Council hosted 60 first nations that came down from [Canada]. They brought down three taonga: a racing war canoe named Geronimo, a traditional canoe, and a totem,” he said.
The delegations came down for the Commonwealth Games. “Geronimo raced against a New Zealand team at the fourth World Outrigger Canoe Sprints, which was held in Ōrākei Basin, a week before the Commonwealth Games.” Hawke said the totem pole was raised at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games.
“[The totem pole] was eventually gifted to the Awataha Marae, which hadn’t been built then, but because the North Shore Council picked up the tab for hosting them at Hato Pētara, it was decided by kaumatua that it would be good if the totem stood there.” Awataha Marae are the kaitaiki (guardians) of the totem pole. General manager Anthony Wilson remembers the day it arrived well.
“I was a young fulla back then, 19 at the time… It was a time when the marae was being built. There were only two things on the site at the time – we were starting to build our kaumatua whare, and the totem pole was coming in,” he said.
“Thankfully, through the kōrero that was had between the kaumatua at Ōrākei and the kaumatua for our marae, it was agreed we’d be the kaitaiki of the totem pole, and the ones to look after it.” “It was a very special time… [The totem pole] came down on a truck. The karakia started up at the top of the road, all the way down and until they erected it.”
Wilson said it was a “culturally rich” morning as there were many different nations, peoples and languages spoken. “The great thing about it, it was many different people coming together as one to celebrate this taonga.” A contingent from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei made returning visits to see their new friends on their whenua in Canada in 1991, 1993 and 1994, Hawke said.
“In 1991, 15 members of Ngāti Whātua went up on a reciprocal visit to pay respects to those who came down. We stayed at their reserves,” he said. “In ‘93 another 15 more culturally-minded went up, and we attended quite a few events around British Columbian Indian reserves. “In ‘94, Taa Hugh, Lady Hugh, Ruby Grey, Joe Hawke and Danny Tumahai took the Commonwealth Games flag to present to their people for their Commonwealth Games,” he said.
The 1994 Commonwealth Games were hosted in Victoria, British Columbia. For John Lyall (Kwakwaka’wakw), the director of the Thunder Indigenous programme, a programme set up to promote the game of rugby within Canadian First Nations communities, visiting the totem is of personal significance.
The carver is renowned indigenous master carver Tim Paul, and a relation to Lyall’s wife, Melissa. “We had to make sure we went and paid our respects, it was quite an honour to see one of our treasures, one of our poles, halfway across the world and to let our kids know the relationships our indigenous people have with each other,” he said.
“I had heard stories about [the totem pole] from friends and family on Vancouver Island where I grew up.” Lyall and the Thunder programme visited the totem pole earlier in August, alongside mana whenua. Lyall said totem poles were incredibly significant and sacred among First Nations Canadian culture. “It’s very significant… We share our origin stories, who we are through visual arts and the totem pole,” he said.
“[The totem pole] is a strong testament to who our peoples are, where they belong and our connection to the world around us.” The Thunder’s two under-18 boys and girls rugby teams toured Aotearoa to play rugby matches across the country. Their connection with Māori was something Lyall hoped to see continue through generations.
“Many of our family back home have been following [the trip] very closely. I think they feel a kinship and a connection to Māori,” he said. “The big reason why we wanted to come to New Zealand for our first international trip was to see that connection. We can reinforce our cultural connections to Aotearoa and I think it’s important for us and important for our kids to see.”
Hawke said to have the teams stay on their marae was ‘amazing’. “This, in an essence, is a lot of the moko of these tribal groups that are here,” he said. The pole however, has stood at Awataha Marae for 33 years, and the time has come to refurbish it. “This pou is called the friendship pole, at the same time that this was raised, a sister pole was raised at the legislature in British Columbia, called the knowledge pole,” Hawke said.
“Our efforts now are to restore, so we’re working collaboratively to restore the pou and also to create pathways, so everybody in Auckland can access it.” “At the moment to get to the totem pole you have to walk through our kaumatua flats, it’s not ideal. We want easy access for everyone to enjoy,” Wilson said. “When you get up close to the totem pole you realise how magnificent it is. As well as the stories behind the pou whenua [around the totem pole], they are all very important to reviving and tell those stories.”