Totem Tale

A historic piece of art is saved from landfill chippers and regains its place in the public eye.

As a young child, Cody Mathias spent many rainy days watching his grandfather, Squamish chief Joe Mathias, carve totem poles. The chief became famous for his totem poles, most notably one erected in Stanley Park, and Cody’s father was a talented carver too. So naturally, Cody was making his own by the time he was 10.

Recently, however, he had the chance to conserve seven of his grandfather’s totem poles, including one that took an amazing journey to reach him.

Chief Mathias’s Sunwapta thunderbird totem pole took three to four months to carve and was originally made for the Muttart family in the 1950s. They gifted it to Dr. George R.A. Rice, the broadcast pioneer who brought CFRN to life through Sunwapta Broadcasting.

The 5.4-metre tall, 360-kilogram totem pole stood in front of the CFRN studios for about 30 years, but when the building was renovated in 1989, it was discarded as trash.

Fortunately, a local sculptor rescued it while dumpster diving for scrap metal. After the artwork changed hands a few times, former CFRN employees raised money to buy it back and donated it to the Royal Alberta Museum in 2010.

Cathy Roy, curator of Western Canadian History at the museum, originally called in Cody Mathias for advice on how to preserve the totem pole with cultural sensitivity. The answer was to spend five days last October re-painting it, a $24,000 project funded by the Edmonton Community Foundation.

“I am so proud to be able to work on his art and I think my grandfather would be proud of me if he saw me working on his art,” says Mathias, who lives in Vancouver, where he is a prolific artist of Aboriginal craft, from jewellery to wood sculpture.

Roy says, “We never get the opportunity to have the descendant of an artist work on an artifact,” she says. “Picasso’s grandson doesn’t just come along and clean his painting.”

Cold Alberta winters have helped preserve the totem pole and, despite some rot, the pole is in great condition. However, it’s too tall for the current museum display areas, so it will remain in storage until the new Royal Alberta Museum is built in 2015.

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