Photograph courtesy Arnaud Meylan, The Olympic Museum
National Geographic Education
This article and the associated photo gallery were made possible with the cooperation of The Olympic Museum.
In front of The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, a 22-foot (7 meter) tall totem pole rises into the crisp air. The totem pole, designed and carved by Jim Hart, celebrates the 2010 Winter Olympics that will take place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, February 12th to 28th.
Hart says he was inspired by the enduring culture of his Haida ancestors, a Native American tribe known for their totem pole art. Haida totem poles have been found for centuries on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island and British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands, also known as Haida Gwaii.
“I tell people that it has been just over 10,000 years on this project,” Hart says of reaching back into the Haida’s rich traditions to design The Olympic Museum’s totem pole.
The artwork is decorated with carvings of a salmon, a black bear, a killer whale, and an eagle. The eagle has a copper set of Olympic rings mounted on its chest. Hart says that when he was commissioned to create the piece for The Olympic Museum he decided to choose animals native to the Pacific Northwest that would also be familiar to people around the world.
“I wanted it [the totem pole] to be recognizable to folks in a normal sense,” he says. “I wanted to pick creatures from nature that are well thought of and highly respected.”
All of the animals represented on the totem pole have a particular significance. The eagle is on the top because it can soar to great heights, while the killer whale below it is included because the animal is one of the most powerful creatures in the sea. The black bear is a powerful land animal. The open doorway in the bear’s stomach represents birth and stimulates the imaginations of onlookers.
The most important of all figures is the salmon on the bottom, which supports the rest of the animals on the pole. “The northwest coast of B.C. [British Columbia] is there because of the salmon,” Hart says.
Anne Chevalley, tThe Olympic Museum’s head of educational and cultural services, discovered the artist during a visit to Vancouver in 2009. After Chevalley returned to Switzerland, she contacted Hart to commission him to construct a totem pole for The Olympic Museum. Chevalley says she was impressed with more than Hart’s artistic abilities.
“When I met Jim, I was struck by his generosity in giving all this information regarding his culture,” she says.
Hart began work on the Olympic pole in July 2009, on Haida Gwaii. With the help of his son, Carl Hart, and his son’s cousin, Eugene Davidson, the artist transformed a slab of red cedar into a totem pole over the course of the summer. Hart and his team used tools as varied as chain saws, adzes, and gouges to carve the pole. Chain saws were used for large-scale sculpting, while the smaller, hand-held tools were used for more intricate, detailed carving.
Much of the work on the totem pole was done outdoors. During one day of work on the project, the wind on Haida Gwaii blew so fiercely that Hart had to put on old-timey aviator goggles to protect his eyes from the swirling sawdust.
Following the construction of the totem pole, it was shipped to Switzerland, where Hart and a crew of seven fellow Haida traveled to help raise the art piece in front of The Olympic Museum. The Olympic Pole was raised in October 2009.
The pole-raising ceremony began with a prayer and song. Then, Hart was assisted by almost 30 people who helped put the pole into its proper position using a system of five ropes.
The artist, who splits his time between living in Vancouver and the town of Old Massett on Haida Gwaii, says that his people have used totem poles for various purposes over the years, including paying respect to their ancestors and documenting their family history.
“It was like flying your colors in a sense,” he says. “You were flying your totemic figures. You are explaining to everybody in the world who you are, where you came from and your history.”
Hart became interested in carving totem poles during his senior year at Haida Gwaii’s George M. Dawson High School and began working for the popular Canadian artist and jeweler Bill Reid. A lot of Hart’s early work was doing reproductions of old totem pole fragments for museums.
“Doing that gave me a chance to learn a heck of a lot about the old pieces and the subtleties that the old ancestors put into the poles,” he says. “So it gave me a lot of insight. From there, I started creating my own designs and things.”
Hart’s totem pole will remain in front of The Olympic Museum until April 2010. Chevalley says that after viewing the raised totem pole, she was struck by how the piece truly conveys the spirit of the Olympics.
“To have such a work of art here in front of the museum is a great symbol,” she says, “because it means that the Olympics are really a meeting of different cultures.”
Olympic Totem Pole Gallery
Follow the creation of the Olympic Totem Pole, from carving in Canada to display in Switzerland.
2010 Winter Olympics
Learn about every sports category in the 2010 games.
Winter Olympic Sports Gallery
See pictures of Winter Olympic events and a map of the 2010 games in Vancouver.