Granddaughter of famed Kwagiulth carver questions private sale of totem poles

The granddaughter of the famed Kwagiulth carver Ellen Neel says the private sale of three totem poles created by her late grandmother “feels like ransom.”

3 totem poles by the late carver Ellen Neel posted for sale online as 'a bargain'

Ellen Neel was a famous Kwagiulth artist whose work appears in collections all over the world. She is also famous for being the first female totem pole carver. (David Neel)

The granddaughter of the famed Kwagiulth carver Ellen Neel says the private sale of three totem poles created by her late grandmother "feels like ransom."

The poles were posted online as a consignment sale on Friday by the Edmonton store Curiosity Inc. A staff member at the store told CBC News Friday afternoon that the poles sold that morning. 

A screenshot of the Facebook posting by the store Curiosity Inc. selling the three Ellen Neel totem poles on Friday. The post has since been removed following the sale of the poles. The image of the home where the poles are being stored was blurred for privacy reasons. (Facebook)

Now the carver's granddaughter Lou-ann Neel, who is also an artist, is concerned about where they might end up and says her grandmother's work is an important piece of her family's history and their distinct style of work. 

CBC News has not yet been able to find out who the buyer is. 

"Her work is what I've been studying and it's actually her work has become my mentor. I studied her pieces and I replicate her work and that's helping me to develop my own style as well."

Totem poles commissioned for mall

An archival photo found in the Alberta Legislative Library holdings of the Ellen Neel totem poles being erected in Lions Park in August 1977. (Alberta Legislative Library)
The three 10-metre tall poles were initially commissioned for a shopping centre in Edmonton. Then in the 1970s, according to an old newspaper clipping, they were donated to a service organization in nearby St. Albert, Alta, and erected in a park.

Then, in about 2011, the poles were decommissioned from the park. An article in a St. Albert newspaper from 2011 shows at least one of the poles "ignored and broken in the public works yard."

It's around that time that they came into the possession of an Alberta man who's been storing them at his home. 

Lou-ann Neel said the family has been in contact with the man who has the poles for years, trying to figure out how to bring them back to B.C. to a location where they could be properly stored.

She said she stopped participating in that conversation about a year ago. 

"I absolutely was really thankful that he scooped them from where they were being placed," she said. 

But she said her feelings started to change when efforts to get the poles to an institution, like the University of Victoria, started turning into a conversation about tax receipts. 

"That's when I just thought, you know, OK, this doesn't feel like it's coming from the heart anymore."

The man who has been holding on to the poles declined an interview, but said he doesn't agree with any characterization that he was motivated by financial gains. 

The three totem poles carved by Ellen Neel have undergone "various transformations" said her granddaughter Lou-ann. "We didn’t have pastels on our poles. It made my artistic eyes bleed when I saw that," she said. (Supplied)

Poles listed for sale on Facebook

After storing them for several years at his home, he said he reached an agreement with Lou-ann's cousin David Neel that it was OK to list the poles for sale. CBC News has been unable to reach David Neel. 

Lou-ann Neel said she feels that more people in the family should have been included in that decision. 

"To pick one person to get the blessings that he was looking for bothers me," she said.  ​

"I think that if he really intended for these to be conserved and preserved and saved and recognized for the cultural heritage items that they are, that selling them off to the highest bidder is kind of contrary to that."

It's not clear how much the totem poles were sold for on Friday, or to whom.

Artist and educator Lou-ann Neel works as a repatriation specialist with the Royal B.C. Museum as part of the First Nations repatriation program. She said she is currently mentoring two of her nieces in the family's artform. (Lou-ann Neel/Facebook)

First female totem pole carver

Ellen Neel is famous for her artwork and for being the first female totem pole carver. She died in 1966 when her granddaughter Lou-ann was just a toddler. ​

Lou-ann Neel said the distinct way her grandmother carved was based on their family history and following their own rights, according to protocol. She said all of the figures carved on the three totem poles in Alberta would be from her family history.

"And that's one of the points I was trying to make in terms of their historical significance, their family significance, is that these are crests that come from our family. So they're important that way."

As a repatriation specialist for the Royal B.C. Museum, Lou-ann acknowledges there is a difference between contemporary works created for commercial purposes and things like ceremonial masks that have found their way into private collections.

When it comes to things like her grandmother's totem poles, she said there are a number of things about the situation she thinks could have been handled differently.

For starters, when the poles were being removed from the park, she said that would have been a good time for someone to reach out to the family to discuss next steps.

"We would have definitely been able to give them some guidance and we probably could have arranged something fairly easily if that had been done," she said. 

"There's an honourable way of handling things if you're going to let go of them afterwards."

What Lou-ann Neel would like is for the poles to come back to B.C. where they could be stored in a museum or public institution, somewhere the public and the family could have access to them.