Author Tags: Art, First Nations

Phil Nuytten is a Métis who apprenticed as a carver, from age 12, with Ellen Neel, one of the three main subjects for his book, The Totem Carvers (1982), a particularly well-illustrated study of the work and lives of Kwakiutl carvers Charlie James, Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin. All three carvers were related but from three different generations.

Charlie James was born in Port Townsend, Washington around 1867, and he died in Alert Bay in 1938. His granddaughter and student Ellen May Neel was born on November 14, 1916, at Alert Bay, and she died on February 3, 1966. Her uncle Mungo Martin, step-son of Charlie James, was born at Fort Rupert around 1880, and he died in Victoria on August 16, 1962. The Totem Carvers is most valuable for its portrait of Ellen Neel, who pioneered commercial sales of Kwakiutl art in Vancouver—with unhappy consequences.

Fluent in English and Kwak'wala, Neel was the daughter of Charlie Newman, the son of a Kwakiutl mother and the American seaman James Newman. Her mother Lucy Lilac James was daughter of Charlie James and Sara Nina Finlay. Raised in Alert Bay, she married the non-Aboriginal ex-convict Ted Neel in 1939 after she had given birth to their son Dave in 1937.

The Neel family moved to Vancouver in 1943. Five more children were born by 1945. After Ted Neel, a sheet metal worker, suffered the first of a series of strokes in 1946, the Neels converted their home on Powell Street into a workshop to enable Ellen Neel to become the main breadwinner. Commissioned to produce an insignia for the Totemland Society (the brainchild of public relations man Harry Duker and Mayor Charley Thompson), Neel provided the model for the totem pole that was used on the letterhead of the society for the promotion of tourism.

Duker arranged for the Neel family to begin carving in Stanley Park where they had a tent and conducted semi-sanctioned commercial sales, eventually establishing a permanent workshop and sales site, with the formal approval of the Parks Board commissioners, at Ferguson Point, near Pauline Johnson's burial site. In 1947, Ellen Neel was interviewed by ethnographer Marius Barbeau for his monograph on Charlie James and she provided much of the information that appears in Barbeau's well-known scholarly work Totem Poles.

In the spring of 1948, President Norman Mackenzie of UBC bought Neel's first polished totem during a conference on Native Indian Affairs at UBC's Acadia Camp in April, prompting the Vancouver Province to describe her as “probably the only woman totem pole carver in the world.” Soon thereafter her family-run Totem Art Studios provided a 16-foot thunderbird totem as a gift to the Alma Mater Society. It was presented at the UBC football stadium before 6,000 football fans by Chief William Scow of Alert Bay, president of the Native Brotherhood of B.C. and publisher of the Native Voice newspaper.

In full ceremonial regalia, Scow magnanimously conferred the right to use the term “Thunderbird” by UBC teams. “This is according to the laws of my people,” he said, “and [the use of the name] is therefore legal for the first time.”

An association with UBC led to an invitation that summer for Neel to restore four large Kwakiutl poles from Fort Rupert, one of which was carved by Charlie James 16 years before she was born, for the Department of Anthropology and its director Harry Hawthorn. As it became increasingly apparent that this work limited her tourism sales in Stanley Park, and as Hawthorn envisioned a more ambitious plan to start making copies of decaying poles instead, Ellen Neel asked her uncle Mungo Martin if he would undertake the UBC work on her behalf.

At age 62 in 1951, he welcomed an opportunity to employ the craftsmanship he had learned from his step-father Charlie James who had also taught him to read and write in a phonetic transcription of the Kwakiutl language developed by Reverend Alfred James Hall. Able to speak only rudimentary English and not highly paid for his work, Mungo Martin was nonetheless happy to live at Acadia Camp with his wife and work fulltime for UBC, carving two original totems while making copies of others. “Mungo Martin is the most creative person I have ever known,” Audrey Hawthorn enthused.

Ellen Neel increasingly turned her hand to commercial projects in the 1950s, such as providing decor for a Harrison Hot Springs hotel foyer, completing a pole for the Vancouver Tourist Association in conjunction with an American television program, and making a wedding gift for Lord and Lady Selkirk of London, England. When the Neels' family business contrived to increase production of “idiot sticks” in the early 1950s, they retained the Ferguson Point workshop for sales and developed a workshop closer to home in conjunction with their basement workshop at 348 Glen Drive.

During this period Phil Nuytten began his apprenticeship with the Neels during the summers. They supplied an eleven-foot pole to a museum in Copenhagen in 1953, the same year Mungo Martin held an auspicious potlatch in Victoria to celebrate his work at Thunderbird Park in Victoria. Although the Neel children received new Kwakiutl names during this gathering, their parents increasingly disregarded traditional values in favour of sales. At age 16, David Neel was encouraged to complete miniature likeness of comedian Bob Hope for the “the world's smallest totem” that was presented to Bob Hope for publicity purposes.

The family provided five poles to an Edmonton shopping centre in 1955. The children began to leave home soon thereafter. Ted and Ellen Neel moved to White Rock, B.C. in 1959, accepted an invitation to demonstrate totem pole carving at Stratford, Ontario in 1960, and returned to live in Aldergrove. Soon after their eldest son David died at age 24 in a car accident in Washington State, in September of 1961, the health of both Ellen Neel and Ted Neel declined.

Whereas the entire family had once been able to fulfill an order from the Hudson's Bay Company for 5,000 tiny poles, she was soon reduced to signing her name to the work of others and selling her own collection of traditional art pieces, her sketch books and even her tools. She entered Vancouver General Hospital in January of 1966 and died at age 49. Some of her ashes were scattered from a rented plane over Johnstone Strait and the Cluxewe River near Port McNeill; the rest were buried at Alert Bay.

Born and educated in Vancouver, Phil Nuytten was living in North Vancouver as an internationally recognized diver and innovator in the field of underwater technology when he wrote The Totem Carvers, the primary record of Ellen Neel’s life. For the likes of effective self-marketers such as Bill Reid, Robert Davidson and Susan Point, Ellen Neel provided a salutary example of how not to proceed as an Aboriginal artist. High-end art galleries and commissions were preferable to department stores or tourist shops.

[Photo: Ellen Neel with her husband]


The Totem Carvers: Charlie James, Ellen Neel, and Mungo Martin (Vancouver: Panorama Publications, 1982).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "First Nations" "Art"

Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver
Exhibit Review (2017)

Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver

An exhibit at Legacy Gallery, Victoria, BC

Reviewed by Megan A. Smetzer


Between January 14 and 1 April 2017, the University of Victoria’s Legacy Art Gallery hosted an exhibit, Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver, curated by Carolyn Butler-Palmer of the Art History Department at the university.

Megan Smetzer, who visited the exhibit for The Ormsby Review, assesses the belated legacy of Ka’kasolas, Ellen May Neel (1916-1966), the Kwakwaka’wakw artist who became the first woman carver in B.C.


In 2014, UBC Press published Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas, edited by Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Jennifer Kramer. This seminal volume, over a decade in the making, is notable for many laudable reasons including its historical depth, diversity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, and range of subject matter.

For all its breadth, however, there is one significant omission that sums up the historiography of Northwest Coast cultural expressions -- a lack of engagement with issues of gender.

Of the more than 800 excerpts framed by over thirty essays, only two address the positioning of Indigenous women and their cultural expressions within and outside of these histories.

With this in mind, it is thrilling to see in the first months of 2017 no less than four exhibitions devoted solely to the artworks produced by Indigenous women.

In Vancouver, Coast Salish artist Susan Point at the Vancouver Art Gallery and Judith Chartrand, Cree ceramicist at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art; Cree photographer Meryl McMaster at the Richmond Art Gallery; and Kwakwaka’wakw carver Ellen Neel at the Legacy Gallery in downtown Victoria.

Is it because, to paraphrase Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it’s 2017?

Though four simultaneous exhibitions are not enough to counter the long history of women’s marginalization within the sphere of cultural production, might they indicate that at long last, we’ve reached a turning point?

It’s ironic, given that Ellen Neel began pushing against these boundaries over ninety years ago when, aged twelve, she began carving.

Ka’kasolas, Ellen May Neel (1916-1966), in many respects, was a woman ahead of her time. Granddaughter of one of the most renowned Kwakwaka’wakw carvers of the twentieth century, Yakuglas/Charlie James, she transformed the skills she learned from him into a range of materials and forms that enabled her to raise her large family in an era of rampant discrimination.

Neel was also a vocal proponent for the recognition of Indigenous art as “a living medium of expression” as it had been for generations.

Over the years her work has been dismissed in the literature as mere souvenirs, reassessed as groundbreaking, and at long last, embraced for the complexity it embodies, both in terms of the historical context out of which it emerged, as well as the legacy it engendered for her family, her community, and Northwest Coast cultural expressions generally.

This small but engaging exhibition begins with an artistic genealogy illustrating the generations of artists related to and inspired by Neel, including the exhibition’s two curatorial consultants, grandchildren Tla’tla’klalis, David Neel and Ika’wega, Lou-Ann Neel.

The exhibition is organized by grouping together different types of output – a mask of Dzonaqua, jewellery, miniature totem poles -- including the Totemland pole, Totemware china, textiles, and silkscreen prints. Interspersed throughout the space are works by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including the mask that welcomes the visitor to the exhibition, carved by David Neel to represent his grandmother.

Informative wall texts both historicize and contextualize Neel’s prolific output and acknowledge the groundbreaking work she accomplished as an indigenous woman artist.

Family members loaned the majority of the work in the exhibition, which not only testifies to the collaborative relationship between the curator and Neel’s descendants, but also calls for a subsequent retrospective exhibition that brings even more of her oeuvre together -- including monumental poles and items held in museum collections.

One of the works perhaps most familiar for those raised in British Columbia, is the “Wonderbird Pole” commissioned in 1953 for the White Spot restaurant in White Rock.

Accompanying the pole is a story, written by Neel, that describes the white rooster, who had to accomplish something truly extraordinary to be placed, wings outstretched, on top of a pole depicting salmon, killer whale, and thunderbird.

According to the “legend,” the rooster thought so hard about what to do to achieve this goal that he laid an egg, thus granting him the highest position on the pole. One wonders if Neel accepted this commission with humour, knowing full well that the “low man” on the totem pole, widely regarded in popular culture as the least important, is actually considered the most significant as it holds everything else up.

The rooster, literally standing on the shoulders of those beings with significant physical, cultural, and spiritual meaning, suggests a more complicated understanding of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the settlers who came later.

Ellen Neel’s artistic output and advocacy work contributed to the contemporary recognition of Indigenous cultural expressions, whether produced by women or men, as responsive to their time and context.

Though it has taken until 2017 to reach what feels like a critical mass of exhibitions devoted to women artists, a great deal of work remains to be done in order to restore the balance central to many coastal Indigenous communities.

This exhibition, a collaborative work between an institution and a family, is a step in the right direction.


Megan A. Smetzer is an independent art historian based in Vancouver. She teaches, publishes, and lectures primarily on historical and contemporary Northwest Coast Indigenous art, focusing on the cultural expressions of women. She is currently co-writing an essay on this topic for an exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on Native American Women Artists. She is also working on her book entitled Painful Beauty: Tlingit Women, Beadwork and the Art of Resilience. In addition, she is the project manager for Border Free Bees, a SSHRC development grant that uses public art and ecology to bring attention to the plight of wild pollinators and empower individuals and communities to engage in solutions to reverse habitat loss.

[Ormsby Review 2017]