The History and Meaning of All the Totem Poles in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

stanley park totem poles kohima epitaph

Stanley Park in Vancouver is regarded as one of the best urban parks in the world. It’s right up there with NYC’s Central Park. You could spend all day here if you like!

In addition to the usual park features, such as beaches and hiking trails, Stanley Park offers unique features like views of the mile-long Lions Gate Bridge, and a World War II memorial stone inscribed with the Kohima Epitaph.

But perhaps the most impressive attraction are the Stanley Park totem poles. This collection of nine poles is visually striking and carries significant cultural and historical meaning.

Some visitors just make a quick stop at the totem poles to admire the artistry and take a few pics. Others want to dig deeper into the history of each pole and the meaning of the characters represented.

vancouver totem poles stanley park
The eight main Stanley Park totem poles on display.

For that second group, we’ve put together a complete guide to the Vancouver totem poles, with a detailed description of the history behind each pole and the animals and supernatural beings depicted on them.

We also have a list of other things to see and do while you’re at Brockton Point checking out the poles. Read on for the details!

The Stanley Park Totem Poles Location

The presence of Canada’s First Nations can be felt in many different parts of the country, from Vancouver to the Yukon. Stanley Park has a display of nine totem poles at Brockton Point in honor of the area’s original inhabitants.

According to one source, the Stanley Park totem poles are the most-visited attraction in all of British Columbia!

vancouver totem poles

These totem poles are eye-catching due to the colors, the sculpting, the designs. Some are recent, some are around 100 years old. All are impressive.

Collection of the totem poles began back in the 1920s, when officials thought they might reconstruct a First Nations village in the park. The poles were moved to Brockton Point in the 1960s. Over the years, new poles have been added, the most recent coming in 2009.

You can easily drive to the poles by putting “totem poles” into your GPS. Yes, the poles have their own listing in Google Maps and Waze! They are found at Brockton Point, which is on the eastern end of Stanley Park.

stanley park totem poles map location
Map of the location of the Stanley Park totem poles (Google Maps)

In front of the poles sits a plaque, which reads: INDIAN TOTEM POLES The totem was the British Columbia Indian’s “coat of arms.” Totem poles are unique to the North West coast of B.C. and lower Alaska. They were carved from western red cedar and each carving tells of a real or mythical event. They were not idols, nor were they worshipped. Each carving on each pole has a meaning. The eagle represents the kingdom of the air. The whale, the lordship of the sea. The wolf, the genius of the land. And the frog, the transitional link between land and sea.

Let’s go over each totem pole in Stanley Park, one by one.

1 Rose Cole Yelton Memorial Pole of the Squamish Nation

rose yelton totem pole

As you approach the Stanley Park totem poles from the parking lot, the first one you see will be the Rose Cole Yelton Memorial Pole of the Squamish Nation. This is the newest totem pole on display, having been raised in 2009.

Even though Stanley Park was established in 1888, many folks lived in the park for decades after. This totem pole was erected next to the spot where Rose and her family lived until 1935.

Rose’s son, Robert Yelton, guided the creation of the pole, with help from seven lead carvers: Vern Baker, Frank Burning, Deon Louie, and Guulaans Flewing; as well as Martin, Shane, and Nathan Sparrow.

Rose was the last surviving member of the Brockton Community, living until 2002. The plaque in front of the pole features a photo of Rose as a teenage, and another in her later years.

rose yelton brockton - vancouver totem poles

This pole doesn’t feature any colors at all. It’s just solid wood. The lack of paint actually makes it stand out in a good way. It’s simple, and classic.

This pole features several symbols which are common on totem poles. The thunderbird at the top, with outstretched wings; a human face between the bird’s wings; a raven; a wolf; an orca whale being held by the wolf (this was added in remembrance of the ferry trips where the carver had seen orcas); and a woman holding bones for a traditional game.

2 Chief Skedans Mortuary Pole

chief skedans mortuary pole

The other eight Stanley Park totem poles stand together, surrounded by trees. We’ll go over each one, starting from right to left, since that’s the common order they are viewed by folks walking to the site.

The Chief Skedans Mortuary Pole is perhaps the most striking of the totem poles, thanks mainly to the large rectangular board surrounding the moon face at the top.

The original version of the pole was raised in the Haida village of Skidegate in 1870 to honor the Raven Chief of Skedans. It depicts the chief’s hereditary crests, with a mountain goat, grizzly bear, and whale. The grizzly bear has tiny figures in its ears, representing the chief’s daughter and son-in-law.

Why is it called a mortuary totem pole? This type of pole was special because of the rectangular board at the top, which contained a cavity that held the chief’s remains. The pole on display here at Stanley Park is a re-creation of that original pole, and therefore does not have remains inside it.

skedans stanley park totem poles meaning

This re-creation was carved in 1964 by Haida artist Bill Reid with assistant Werner True. The moon face was recarved in 1998 by Don Yeomans.

3 Ga’akstalas Totem Pole

ga'akstalas totem pole

Just to the left of the Chief Skedans pole sits the Ga’akstalas pole. It’s the tallest of the poles, thanks to the huge bird sitting at the top, and it features more characters than many of the other totem poles in Stanley Park.

This pole depicts several important figures in Kwakwada’wakw culture. It was designed by Russell Smith and carved by Wayne Alfred and Beau Dick in 1991. The plaque quotes Dick as saying, “We wanted this pole to be a beacon of strength for our young people and show respect for our elders. It is to all our people who have made contributions to our culture.”

This pole features Quolous, a legendary bird, soaring at the top of the structure. Just below that is Red Cedar-bark Man, an ancestor who survived a great flood and gave his people the first canoe. He is shown holding a small canoe in his hands.

Then comes the double-headed serpent Sisyutl. That is followed by Siwidi, a hero who is depicted riding an orca. Continuing further down the pole, next comes the Raven, followed by a Grizzly Bear, who is holding a man’s head just beneath his mouth.

At the bottom of the pole sits the giantess Dzunukwa, who is represented for her role in bringing magic and wealth to her people. She is shown sitting with her arms outstretched and her mouth open.

4 Thunderbird House Post

thunderbird house post

Next comes a totem pole that is one of the shortest on display, but also one of the most unique. This post is composed of only two depictions. At the top is a thunderbird, shown with a large yellow beak and its white wings outstretched.

Beneath that is a grizzly bear that a fierce-looking face and large teeth. The bear is shown wrapping its arms around a smaller human.

The carved house post is a bit different than other totem poles in First Nations tradition. The house post was used in cedar houses to support its roof beams.

The one on display at Stanley Park was carved by Tony Hunt in 1987. It’s a replica of a house post carved by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Charlie James in the early 1900s. That original post still exists and can be found in the Museum of Vancouver.

5 Sky Chief Pole

sky chief pole

Sky Chief Pole is another cool-looking totem pole. It’s very tall and very thin and features a number of brown and blue characters, which are intended to represent important characters in Nuu-chah-nulth history. It was carved in 1988 by Hesquiat artist Tim Paul and Ditidaht artist Art Thompson.

Paul explains, “Our art comes from spirituality. Even after the onslaught of another culture, our spirituality and our beliefs are alive. In this pole we wanted to acknowledge the arts and ceremonies of our grandparents’ generation and show that the arts are her today, just as we are here–alive and intact.”

This totem pole begins at the very top with Sky Chief holding a moon. Moving down, we find a kingfisher. The kingfisher is a small little bird that is often blue and yellow or white, although it’s depicted here as orange-brown.

Next comes a thunderbird, followed by a whale with a lightning-snake. Near the bottom comes a wolf, and at the base is a Man of Knowledge holding a topati, or a treasure.

6 Kakaso’ Las Totem Pole

kakaso las totem pole
The Kakaso’ Las pole is in the middle.

The Kakaso’ Las pole is another one that catches a lot of attention from Stanley Park visitors. It has an eye-popping appearance with a large thunderbird at the top and several large faces with big bright eyes looking out at the viewer, with a lot of green and yellow paint to brighten up the wood.

Kwakwaka’Wakw carver Ellen Neel and her uncle Mungo Martin were pioneers when it came to the practice of creating totem poles for museums and tourism purposes. They created this Kakaso’ Las pole in 1955 for Woodward’s department store.

That original pole from nearly 70 years ago is the one on display today at Stanley Park, though it’s on loan from the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology.

In addition to that majestic thunderbird, this pole features a sea bear clutching an orca, followed beneath by a regular human man holding a frog.

thunderbird totem poles in stanley park

After that comes bak’was, or “wild man of the woods.” That’s the face with the bright blue-green color and large yellow nose that looks like a beak.

Next comes the giantess Dzunukwa, whom we also saw on the Ga’akstalas totem pole. This time, she’s sitting with her hands holding her knees and her lips open. Finally, at the bottom sits the Raven.

7 Chief Wakas Totem Pole

chief wakas totem pole

I like the Chief Wakas pole a lot from an artistic perspective, as it heavily utilizes black and white to create an appealing visual. It was designed after the “talking stick” that was always held by the person making an important speech in Kwakwaka’Wakw ceremonies.

This is a replica of an actual pole that sat at the house of Chief Wakas in the 1890s. The beak of the raven, at the bottom of the pole, would open to form a ceremonial entrance to the house.

The other characters on this totem pole include the thunderbird, the orca, the wolf, the “Wise One,” and the bear. Also, that creature toward the bottom with the huge beak and feathers that looks like an owl? It’s actually a huxwhukw, a mythical bird.

totem pole symbols characters meaning

These characters were all taken from an Owikeno story that Chief Wakas told. This replica of the pole was carved by Nimpkish artist Doug Cranmer in 1987.

This one is tucked back closer to the treeline than some of the others, but it’s still easy to see because of the intricate detail on the faces and animals of the pole.

8 Oscar Maltipi Pole

oscar maltipi totem pole
The Oscar Maltipi totem pole is in the middle.

The Oscar Maltipi totem pole at Stanley Park is another cool one because it’s been around for awhile. This one was created in 1968 by Oscar Maltipi himself, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist who trained at the Royal BC Museum.

This totem pole only features two creatures. On top is a thunderbird. This one is different than some of the other totem pole thunderbirds, as this bird has its wings down to its side rather than in the outstretched position. It has a green face a yellow beak, and yellow legs.

Below that is the orca whale, which is shown pointing face down. Its large fin juts out from its back, so it looks like a nose until you realize the whale is looking down.

9 Beaver Crest Pole

beaver crest pole

The Beaver Crest Pole stands out with its absence of paint, absence of protruding animal limbs, and the circular shape of its design. While the other totem poles were carved into shapes with some sharp edges, this pole maintains the round, cylindrical shape of its tree.

The characters of this pole are not labeled on the informational plaque. But you can clearly see some human faces and several small critters which appear to be beavers.

The plaque explains, “Once five brothers went to hunt beaver skins for a feast. The youngest brother helped the young beavers escape and followed then to their lodge. He watched as they took off their beaver cloaks to reveal human forms and tell of the death and destruction of their chief. He watched their songs and dances then returned home to report what he had seen. The brothers performed the dances of the beaver people at a feast and raised a pole called Big Beaver. It was at this time that the Eagle Chief met and shared the skies with the Raven, which is another story.”

The Beaver Crest Pole is meant to explain how the Tait family’s Eagle clan came to choose the beaver as its crest. The totem pole was carved in 1987 by Nisga’a artist Norman Tait, his son Isaac, brother Robert, and nephew Ron Telek.

There you have it! The complete meaning behind the characters, animals, and beings represented in the Stanley Park totem poles! Once you understand the stories, the carvings feel so much more significant.

Things To See and Do Near the Vancouver Totem Poles

Who knew there was so much to do at the Stanley Park totem poles? Here’s a quick rundown of everything you can and should do while you’re here.

1 See the ‘People Amongst the People’ Gateway Arch Sculptures

First order of business is to check out all the poles we featured above. But don’t stop with the nine totem poles. There are three other red cedar arch structures in the area, known as gateways.

gateways totem pole susan point

Titled People Amongst the People, these gateways were installed in 2008 and created by Musqueam artist Susan Point. They incorporate the art forms of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish First Nations and serve as a welcome to the traditional lands of the area’s Coast Salish people.

Today, one gateway stands next to the eight totem poles along the trees, one stands just south of the gift shop, and one can be found by the pay box in the parking lot.

salmon gateway stanley park

See the artist statement to learn about the individual symbols and characters in each of these gateways.

2 Stop at the Gift Shop

Come between 9 am and 5 pm and you can visit the “At the Totem Poles” gift shop. It’s right next to the totem poles in a wooden building.

The gift shop has all sorts of trinkets, many created by First Nations artists. There are magnets, carvings, postcards, mugs, tshirts, and just about anything else you could want. I personally bought a sweet new leather wallet there. They also sell snacks and drinks.

totem poles gift shop

There’s a small seating area under a roof next to the gift shop where you can eat and read informational signs that provide further insight into the history of the totem poles at Stanley Park.

3 See the Downtown skyline

Just across from the parking lot, you’ll see a great view of Downtown Vancouver. Cross the street to the sidewalk for the best photo opportunities. Just watch for the many bicyclists who will be racing past on the bike trail.

bicyclists stanley park

4 See the Lions Gate Suspension Bridge

The mile-long Lions Gate Bridge connects Vancouver with West Vancouver and North Vancouver, which are all different cities (that’s not confusing at all!)

Stanley Park is a great place to see the full span of the bridge, which was constructed in 1937.

lions gate bridge vancouver suspension

Only San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge can really compare in terms of massive bridges on the West Coast. And this one wins out when it comes to the beautiful forest scenery surrounding it.

Interestingly, the Guinness brewing family built the bridge, which stands 364 feet over the water. It was initially a toll bridge, before tolls were removed in 1963.

Stanley Park has several spots where you can great views of the bridge. There’s a viewing platform just north of the totem pole area that offers views of the bridge and North Vancouver.

5 Watch for horse carriages

From March to November, you’ll see horse drawn carriages pass through the area periodically. The carriage tour stops at the totem poles for about 10 minutes for guests to stop and view the poles up close.

horse carriage stanley park

If you happen to be here when the tour arrives, be ready for larger crowds while the tourists explore the totem pole site. After several minutes, they’ll be called back to the carriage, and the totem pole area will suddenly become a lot quieter.

6 See the Shore to Shore sculpture

Stz’uminus master carver Luke Marston created the Shore to Shore sculpture, which can be found just a short walk from the totem pole parking lot. It was created by carving cedar, then casting it in bronze.

shore to shore sculpture

The statue depicts the figures of Portuguese Joe Silvey, an immigrant to BC in the 1860s; his first wife pqalten:at of Musqueam and Squamish descent; and his second wife Kwatleematt (Lucy), a Sechelt matriarch.

Joe is shown holding a spear and a fish, while the women are shown wearing traditional garb and holding fishing net needles. The Silvey family lived right here at Brockton Point. Carver Luke Marston is the great-great-grandson of Silvey and Lucy.

7 See the Harry Jerome runner statue

Following the road from the totem pole parking lot, just past Hallelujah Point, you’ll encounter a statue of a runner, who is shown leaning forward to reach the finish line tape. Unveiled in 1988, the bronze sculpture honors Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome, and was created by Jack Harman.

runner statue harry jerome

Jerome won a bronze medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, set seven world records, and was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Visiting the Totem Poles in Stanley Park: Parking Lot, Bathroom Info

Guests will find a free bathroom located at the Stanley Park totem poles. It’s connected to the gift shop.

As for parking, the main parking lot has room for about 30 cars and approximately 10 RVs, so it’s a large parking lot. But it can still fill up on busy summer weekends, in which case you may have to park in a nearby lot and walk over. It’s a pay parking lot. As of this writing, the cost is $3.75 CAD per hour.

You may notice coyote warning signs while you’re here. As the sign notes, there are coyotes living nearby. You shouldn’t expect to see them, however, as they tend to keep their distance from people in crowded places.

coyotes stanley park

One final tip for visiting the Stanley Park totem poles: The poles all face west. So keep that mind when deciding what time to stop by. If you arrive in the afternoon, the poles will be lit up brightly by the sun, which is great for distant photos, but the colors will be somewhat washed out.

If you visit in the morning, the poles will be in the shade, so you won’t get bright sun shining on them, but the colors will pop a bit more in photos when you zoom in.

totem poles stanley park

Other Activities in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

Of course, the totem poles aren’t the only attraction in Stanley Park. There’s so much to do there. One other interesting historic attraction on the opposite side of the park is the Kohima Epitaph Memorial.

The Battle of Kohima was a key fight in World War II, ultimately won by British forces over the Japanese in India. The more than 1,400 Allied soldiers lost in the battle were honored with a cemetery and a memorial poem that read:

When you go home, tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow, we gave our today

kohima epitaph vancouver stanley park
The Kohima Epitaph Memorial in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Some sources suggest that the poem was written by John Maxwell Edmunds around the time of World War I, but it was after WWII that his words were adopted for a greater cause and became more well-known.

Today, this Kohima Epitaph poem appears on various memorials around the world, including one here at Ferguson Point in Stanley Park, which served as a defense fort in WWII.

There’s so much more in Stanley Park, including an Arboretum, an Asian Garden, a wildlife sanctuary, duck and frog ponds, beaches, bike paths, playgrounds, restaurants, and even a pitch & putt golf course.

For more on the city, check out my Vancouver travel tips, which I put together based on the mistakes I made while visiting. And here’s my collection of photos from Vancouver.

Those interested in totem poles may want to know that a totem pole can also be found in Seattle, in the historic neighborhood of Pioneer Square.

Which is your favorite of the Stanley Park totem poles?

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