Rescuing Totem Poles in “Beyond Eden”

For many British Columbians, the words ‘Haida Gwaii’ speak of mystery. The words mean ‘Islands of the People’, and refer to the misty, cold Queen Charlotte Islands on BC’s coast. They’re familiar to most of us from Emily Carr’s paintings, if nothing else.

The Haida Gwaii is the backdrop for Bruce Ruddell’s “Beyond Eden”. The musical premiered last Thursday at the Vancouver Playhouse, one of the many events of the Cultural Olympiad. Here’s the plot summary:

In the abandoned Haida village of Ninstints stand totem poles. They have stood there for decades. Lewis Wilson and his long-time friend and colleague Max Tomson are on an expedition to rescue these totem poles and save them from their waterlogged, beetle-infested and fragile condition. On their journey both men struggle: Wilson with his authority and resistance to removing the poles; Max to find his place between the white world and his Haida ancestry.

The play is based on actual events. A young Bill Reid–bound to become a famed sculptor–made the actual trip in 1957.

Clever Projections and Inoffensive Songs

Director Dennis Garnhum and set designer Bretta Gerecke cleverly realize this world–the deck of a ship and the trees of Haidi Gwaii–through crisscrossing ramps, intersected by huge timbers that reach into the theatre’s fly tower. They make excellent use of projections, both to simply establish location and, in the more mystical scenes, to evoke mood. During one song–“Carving”, I think–the Haida totems are brought back to life through tricky use of animated projections, a technique which so often goes wrong in contemporary theatre.

The cast is mostly strong, with John Mann (yes, of Spirit of the West fame) and Jennifer Lines (a former UVic classmate of mine) standing out. There were some opening night jitters, and a little clunkiness from some of the chorus members, but Mann’s performance carries us through the meandering storyline.

It’s hard to write one good song, let alone fifteen. The music was unremarkable and, for the most part, inoffensive. A few days later, I find I can still hum the tune from the title song, so that’s something. More interesting was the a capella First Nations music–it’s a form you usually don’t hear outside of tourist traps and documentaries.

Though the play is set in 1957, the script is oddly free of period slang or more than a few token cultural references. Elvis is mentioned a couple of times, but that’s the extent of it. I was also thrown by phrases like “I get that” and “is there a problem here?” which have a much more modern feel to them.

Reid’s Work Makes a Strong Case

The play’s central question–should the characters take and preserve these totems or leave them to rot?–seems at first like a question ripe for debate. In his director’s notes, Garnhum refers to “the true cost of the removal of the [sic] Totem Poles”. While the village where the totems stand has long since been abandoned, the play’s Haidi characters demand that the totems should be left in their rightful spot, to decay and be reclaimed by the forest, as has occurred for thousands of years. However, there will be no new poles to replace the old ones. As the play points out, that cycle has been broken.

At the same time, the Bill Reid character–born of a Haida mother, both in the play and in real life–wants to take and preserve the poles so that he can learn from them. He says, “When I am ready, I will raise a pole of my own. And another and another.” Of course, Reid turned out to be an extraordinary artist and preserver of Haida culture (I count his Raven and the First Man as one of my favourite pieces of Canadian art). From the year 2010, Reid’s accomplishments since taken the poles are incredibly convincing evidence in support of his decision.

“Beyond Eden” isn’t without its cliches. Growing up on the West Coast, I got exposed to a lot of First Nations-themed art. I’ve seen plenty of magical realist plays where there’s some raven or eagle or muskrat who wears a goofy costume and dances around the stage prophesying and telling fables. “Beyond Eden” has ‘The Watchman’, clad in Haida regalia, who serves a similar purpose. Plus, the play name checks the familiar injustices the white man inflicted upon the Haida–residential schools, banned potlatches and small pox.

They’re familiar stories, capably told. I’d probably discourage my more cynical Vancouver friends from attending. On the other hand–and this seems to be the litmus test, in light of the Olympics–I’d probably recommend the production to out-of-towners who didn’t know this part of our province’s history.

It is so Canadian that, when the world comes to visit, we trot out our historical misdeeds for their entertainment. It’s an impulse that both frustrates and delights me.

“Beyond Eden” runs through February 6. You can watch a trailer for the show on the Playhouse’s website.


  1. I was at the BC museum a few months back and, after listening to an anthropologist speak for awhile, I learned that it is technically a mistake to call most of these items “totem” poles. Apparently, the term totem is used to address an item of religious significance of which most of the poles created by the Haida were not. He just called them “poles” which, to me, sounds a little boring if not somewhat ambiguous.

    Another interesting point that he brought up was that the pole-making industry amongst the BC aboriginals increased dramatically only after the Europeans came around. Apparently, these explorers (as tourists still do today) liked the looks of these things and would trade quite handsomely for them. I have no citations or references for this so it would curious to verify this.

  2. History is History and we, as Canadians should be proud of it, and how we are working to right the wrongs. So, yes trotting out the bad things that happened is an important part of telling the First Nations history because more often then not people hear about the European history and put the First Nations as a small player.

    And Chris, I remember reading about how europeans actually encouraged the carving of Native art, because they sold well.

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