800-year-old fallen cedar tree transformed into totem pole for OSU Longhouse

This beaver is one of 13 creatures carved on a totem pole by master Haida carvers. It will reside in the new Native American Longhouse on campus. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

In the depths of a dark shipping container, a long and twisting tree trunk lays on its side, smelling strongly of cedar and wood dust. From out of the darkness, forms begin to emerge, a staring eye here, an outstretched tongue there, a wing, a claw. Suddenly the tree shows its true nature, an intricately carved totem pole that, unlike its one-sided cousins, has creatures carved onto every side.

The piece was carved by master carver Clarence Mills of Vancouver, B.C., and two assistant carvers. Mills is a member of the Haida Nation, an indigenous people located in Canada and Alaska. The work was commissioned by Oregon State University alum Jim Whyte, a Vancouver businessman with a long-time admiration for Native American artwork. Originally, Whyte had planned for the totem pole to be placed in front of his business, Next I Interactive Inc., before the Vancouver Olympics, but the event came and went, and the work wasn’t yet complete.

But after Whyte began talking with OSU President Ed Ray about the revamping of a number of OSU’s cultural centers, he became intrigued with the story of the new Native American Longhouse, which is currently being constructed just south of the existing building. Whyte decided to donate the totem pole to the Longhouse, in addition to an original painting by Haida artist Bill Reid.

The totem was carved from a giant 800-year-old cedar tree that used to stand in Stanley Park, in Vancouver, B.C. The tree fell during a storm in 2006, and was donated to Mills by the Vancouver Parks Board. Mills said the 360-degree totem is one-of-a-kind. There are 13 different creatures on the pole, including a bear, a hummingbird, a frog, and of course, a beaver.

OSU alum Jim Whyte commissioned the cedar totem pole, and has donated it to the Longhouse. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Whyte and his wife, Luana, visited OSU on Sept. 14 to tour the construction site of the new Longhouse, and to unveil the totem pole to students and staff. The couple was also on campus for the dedication of the Whyte Track and Field Center. Whyte was involved in track and field as an OSU student and was a major donor to the project.

Whyte said because of the intricacy of the carving and unexpected sections of rot that weren’t visible until carving began, the process was laborious.

“This took ten times longer than a traditional totem pole,” Whyte said.

Victoria Nguyen, director of Diversity Development at OSU, said her office had been receiving regular updates on the progress of the sculpture.

“Everyone here shares my excitement and anticipation of seeing this totem pole,” she said.

Whyte said as a native of Vancouver he grew up around First Nations (indigenous) people, and has long admired Pacific Northwest Native American artwork. He had presented Pres. Ray with a ceremonial Haida cape and a glass totem on a previous visit to campus. This time, he came with something a little heavier. The massive carving is 12-feet tall and will be placed in the southwest corner of the completed Longhouse, against a set of large windows, where it will be visible from the street.

The building is expected to be completed during winter term. A grand opening celebration will be scheduled at a later date.

For a video interview with the main carver: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o-hhjZGrIs

~ Theresa Hogue

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