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Neel Page 43

Great Canadian Ar & Artists

Totem Pole Carver Ellen Neel (1916 - 1966)

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous totem pole left from master Kwakwaka'wakw carver Ellen Neel, when she was at the top of her form in the early 1950s. It features a fine thunderbird, with outspread wings, sitting on top of a bear. Ellen carved this out of a solid chunk of yellow cedar and then added the wings fitted with pins as separate elements into the statue.

Below working on another commissioned work sometime in the late 1950s.

Ellen Neel is one of a family trio of totem pole carvers who put Kwakwaka'wakw totem pole carving back on the map in the first half of the 20th century. The others were, her grandfather Charlie James, and her uncle Mungo Martin.


Totem Pole - Ellen Neel 1954
Orig. cedar totem pole - Size - 55 cm
Found - Toronto, ON

Of the countless Canadians who had a totem pole souvenir in their houses from a trip to the west coast, in the late 1940s through the 50s, and early 60s, chances are it was produced by Ellen May Neel, and her brood of carvers in Vancouver.

Ellen was born in a plank house into a poor Kwakwaka'wakw (pronounced Kwok-wokie-wok) family in Alert Bay, Vancouver Island.

She grew up to become the first North West Coast woman carver.

Like too many native women, her life was tragically short, and bedevilled by misfortune, none of it her doing...


Ellen as she looked the year she carved the pole left, and signed her name. Her Kwakwaka'wakw name, which she seldom used, meant "People who came from far away to seek her advice." In Alert Bay she was known simply as Ellenah, and for her laughter and constant good cheer and as one who had time for everyone.

Ellen carved three types of poles: occasional full size totem poles which were commissioned for setting up outside houses, more common "midway" poles, such as this one, detail left, two to five feet high, which were often commissions as well, and the small tourist poles see bottom for selling to the walk in trade.

She took the most loving care with the bigger poles, as one can see with this one, when one compares it with mass produced tourist poles which only sold for two to ten dollars (in 1954). A larger pole like this one would go for $65.

The grizzly bear she carved as the base of the totem pole, top left.

Ellen Neel's construction method can be clearly seen on the back, along with the placement of her signature, and the date she made it.

The central totem was a single piece of red or yellow cedar. For the eagle's wings she fastened a paddle with tiny nails on to the base of each wing, to fit into two round holes she drilled into the central column. They are not glued just loosely fitted. Perhaps they were once a tight fit, but, with the passing of time, and the drying of the wood, have become quite loose in their sockets.

Her Grandfather's Touch...
Charlie James - Thunderbird c 1920 Ellen Neel - Thunderbird 1954
Here one can see, across the generations, the artistic legacy of Charlie James in the work of his granddaughter, who, as a child, learned her carving and painting technique, in the 1920s and 30s, in his work shed that stood below at this spot on the beach at Alert Bay.

The shed, the hammering, the joyful noises of children playing - and learning - as their grandfather made his totem poles here, are long gone, but the spirituality of this place has only grown with their passing... Higher on the beach, just over the road on the left, a new generation of Kwakwaka'wakw carvers carry on their legacy in their own "beach" sheds.

Though more than 30 years separate the poles above, some of Charlie's artistic flourishes can clearly be seen on Ellen's pole: the heavy black eyebrow line with its square ends, the red "eye liner," the construction of the eye, the colour and shape of the surrounding green "spectacles," the placement, colour, and design of the whiskers behind the beak, even down to the two black lines leading back, and the shape of the beak.

The killer whale crest on the chest of the thunderbird, which Ellen put on most of her totems, was adopted from her grandfather too; it was her way of honouring him with his personal monogram which he had used in the same way.



Like no one, before or since, she and her family were destined to revive the totem pole culture of the west coast peoples in the consciousness of non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Over almost 20 years the Neels produced thousands of totem poles of all shapes and sizes, for countless customers, across Canada and the world.

Two of the finer Kwakwaka'wakw artists working in this shed are Aubrey Johnson below left, and Stephen Bruce right who gladly accept commissions that they bring to life only steps from where Charlie James and Ellen Neel once toiled in anonymity... motivated by a dream...

Aubrey Johnson was born in Alert Bay and can carve a wide variety of Kwakwaka'wakw masks, utensils, or decorative items.

He carries on the traditions of Ellen, William and Mungo.


Stephen Bruce was born in Alert Bay in 1968, started carving at 18, and is versatile in creating anything from rattles, bowls, to masks and large totem poles for clients from Canada, the US, Japan, and Europe.

He carries on the traditions of Ellen, William, and Mungo.

Great Canadian Shame...

How much did racism, among Ottawa bureaucrats, have to do with Ellen's rejection? 45 years later, hard as it may be to believe, Canada's National Gallery, which over the decades had given dedicated shows to many solo white artists, did not do a show featuring a solo Indian artist till 2006, when it belatedly honoured Norval Morrisseau who was then at death's door, in a wheel chair, and hadn't painted in years. Even then, the Nation's Heritage Art Gallery recognized him with great reluctance, and was pushed to do it. Everyone in the art community had known that Norval could drop dead any day - for years... Auctioneers of his art blatantly used his impending death to hike the value of his art pieces they were selling. Frankly the scuttlebutt is, that the National Gallery hoped he would die so they wouldn't have to give him a show. But Norval refused to die, and the National Gallery was finally forced to give him his due in 2006. We're sure that Ellenah cheered, though mutedly no doubt. Just what did it take to get the high quality of Indian art recognized in Ottawa when it was in great demand and widely praised everywhere else in Canada and around the world?

The Gallery's reluctance was not accidental or an oversight; Norval had been world famous, for decades, everywhere except in Ottawa.

Astonishing as it may seem, to non-Canadians, in an even worse snub to Canada's aboriginal community, the National Gallery had, at the time, not purchased even a single work by Canada's most famous Indian painter. Compare that with another contemporary white artist, Michael Snow, who had good connections, from whom the Gallery had acquired over 100 separate pieces during the same period of time. Not to mention hundreds more from other Jewish artists (Rosalind Solomon is listed with acquisitions/tax write off certificates for 111 works.) The Gallery's largest acquisition, ever, in fact, was for some 4 million (2007 converted) dollars for a work by another Jewish American artist... The disproportion of selective merit is nothing if not staggering when one considers there are over 600,000 people who call themselves Indian in Canada, as opposed to only 350,000 who call themselves Jewish.

Is it any wonder that many people, and not only Indians, consider this a blatantly racist slight by Ottawa bureaucrats.

If you want to find a Norval show catalogue you won't find one at Canada's National Gallery which has decided to un-publicize Norval by not issuing new books of his show. You will have to go on ebay where you will have to pay $130 US plus to get one, certainly the most expensive paperback book available today.

The snub continued.

Only a very limited number of catalogues of Norval's show - the first solo Aboriginal artist retrospective Canada's National Gallery has ever held - were produced, falling far short of the demand. In spite of numerous complaints to the National Gallery it refused to do additional printings. Even the staff of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, in Kleinburg, Ontario, which inherited the show after it left Ottawa, complained, saying they had tried repeatedly to get extra catalogues from the National Gallery, because viewer demand was so strong, and they had run out. The National Gallery just refused to print more for them.

Because of what some would call the National Gallery's blatant racist negligence, all of Norval's finest works today are in private collections, and so, unlike the works of Canada's top white artists, not accessible to visitors to the nation's premier art museum. Unlike the National Gallery, which prefers spending Canadian tax dollars on dead, white European males, Canada's private collectors were not put off by Norval's Indian origins, or his refusal to die... Instead they revelled in his art, his life, and Canada's Aboriginal heritage, which he represented...

Need one add, that as late as 2007, Canada's National Gallery lists no holdings of any works of art by Ellen Neel... but scores of perfectly awful things by Joyce Wieland who also died young, but obviously had much better connections... Did we mention that she was married to Michael Snow...? Oh and she was white...

Go to Norval Morrisseau

Go to Potlatch at Alert Bay
Great Canadian Oversight - Sadly no historic marker commemorates this Great Canadian historic site, and the life of a Great Canadian, who was intimately connected with it. Here, opposite the ferry dock, on the footprint now occupied by a restaurant, stood the house of Chief Wakius right in which Ellen Neel was born Nov. 14, 1916, the same year the photo was taken.
Below, looking the other way, the same view, a century apart, the site along the historic road once bounded by Kwakwaka'wakw plank houses, nestled up against the hillside (c 1890). The telephone pole stands in the spot once occupied by the left of the trio of totem poles in a view taken around 1900.

The restaurant is opposite the main ferry dock of the town probably because of tradition; when people arrived in the old days, stopping at the chief's house was normal, and became the perfect place to build a substantial dock in the first place.

Down the road, a hundred yards, is the house were people were imprisoned during the potlatch debacle of the 1920s, and a bit further on to the left, the beach where Charlie's carving shed was at the time.

Below a rare view showing the shoreline looking down past the restaurant right, with Chief Wakius' house. Where the Chief's big dock was is now all landfill for the beach road. This is the site of the famous potlatch conflict in the 1920s.

Ellen May Neel was born in Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island, off Vancouver Island's Inside Passage. Her father Charles Newman, was an American seaman; her mother Lucy, was Kwakwaka'wakw, the daughter of famous totem pole carver Charlie James.

Since her mother was sick so often she spent much of her childhood in Charlie James' care. From the age of ten on, she found him a stern taskmaster, making her repeat drawings over and over to get them right. She would often cry from the anguish of trying to please. By the age of 12 she was able to carve well enough that her totem poles sold to tourists who came to Alert Bay. She quit school at 18.

She took up with, and later married, Edward Lyle Neel, a smooth talking white salesman who had altered his name to escape a checkered past in the US, but his witty and facile tongue enthralled the local girls in Alert Bay. They thought he was a coveted catch, but the sheet metal salesman proved to be a marginal provider at best, especially for a family that grew to have six children.

In 1943 they all left Alert Bay and moved to Vancouver. In 1946 Ellen's husband had the first of a series of debilitating strokes that made him unable to work full time. The family was facing dire poverty.

Ellen decided she would have to become the primary bread winner with a sick husband, as well as six children to look after.

It was a Herculean task for anyone, let alone an Indian woman in Vancouver in the 1940s. What to do?

Ellen decided her only strength was her background in native art. Perhaps she and her family could make souvenir totem poles like she had with Charlie James years before in Alert Bay.

Starting in 1946 Ellen recruited her family into making souvenir totem poles for the tourist trade in Vancouver. The city gave her a place in Stanley Park to set up shop during the summer. Commissions for larger poles sometimes came in. Today one stands at the University of British Columbia. Commissions for smaller presentation poles from one to two metres also dribbled in. But most of the output was the cheap smaller tourist poles (family stamped example here).

Ellen's talent and work had made her famous in Canada and overseas. But economic survival was always touch and go. On one occasion she had a commission for 5,000 poles from the Hudson's Bay Company but that was rare. Some months there were no sales for larger poles at all.

By 1960, when Ellen was only 44 the strain began to show as she suffered bouts of sickness where she could not work. In 1961 her eldest son Dave was killed in a car accident. She never got over the loss and sank further into depression.

In 1963, in the direst poverty, her friends told her to ask the Canada Council for help, and, in a refrain that has echoed down through the ages, assured her that the Council was always giving grants to all kinds of undeserving people for doing totally useless projects. Like maybe a suit made out of meat... Certainly they would help out the west coast's most famous Indian artist to assist her artistic development and keep Canada's first woman totem pole carver and her brood from going on welfare at the same time. The Canada Council, whose officers and offspring grew sleek and fat from salaries, expense accounts, and pensions, true to form, turned her down flat, though they expressed sympathy for her plight...

The brush off from the Canada Council hastened Ellen's decline. Her friends say when the letter arrived refusing help, Ellen just sat there, staring into space.

In the 1960s it was tough being an Indian woman trying to do the right thing in a society where special interests - read white men - ran everything for themselves and their kind. Is it any wonder that many people, and not only Indians, consider this snub a blatantly racist slight by Ottawa bureaucrats.

After that, things were desperate in the extreme for Ellen. With both parents sick and the children on their own, one brother stayed to keep Ellen and her husband from starving. He started selling off family heirlooms to bring in cash: Ellen's tools, her favourite Charlie James drawings and carvings, which she had kept for thirty years, and the family's sacred copper, mostly behind Ellen's back. When they found out, she and her siblings were furious but what could they do when you hit rock bottom. Ellen's depression reached new lows...

In January 1966, Ellen entered hospital for the last time. She died on February 3. She was only 49, totally worn out by the cares of life. An Indian woman, in the best traditions of her people, who had given her all to her husband, her family, the art of her people, leaving nothing for herself, not even her health...

She was betrayed by bad luck, but also by a society where artists, who are not tied in with special interests who pull the cultural money strings, doing their best is just not good enough, especially if you are Indian.

Great Canadians - Robert & Signe McMichael collected great Canadian artists when others weren't that much interested and donated their collection to the Province of Ontario, complete with a house and property to house their priceless bequest. In return they got a whopping big tax deduction.

Unlike the National Gallery of Canada, which shunned Norval Morrisseau and his work, all during his professional life, and never bought any of his art, Robert and Signe supported Norval early in his career, and bought his work as early as 1975, over thirty years ago, when he was at his most powerful as an artist, and also, like Ellen Neel was, ten years earlier, in need of money.

This was a full thirty five years before Canadian tax payer funded Ottawa art bureaucrats could swallow their distaste for this Indian artist enough to give him a show he should have had decades before.

As a result the McMichael Gallery has fine Morrisseaus from his most powerful period - the 1970s - while the National Gallery has none... It is now forced to buy them, at top dollar, from private collectors. But Gallery curators must be pleased anyway because none of that money will be going to Norval, whose personal excesses offended many.

As one Toronto art dealer, of like mind set, barked: "I hate that guy!"

Another insight into Robert McMichael is offered by respected Canadian Art Curator Joan Murray in her book, (Confessions of a Curator) who reports he left families of other prominent Canadian artists outraged... She says Tom Thomson's family reported to her that McMichael took pieces of Tom Thomson's art, without authorization - some call that stealing - while visiting the home of the deceased artist's aged sister, Margaret Tweedale, while she was incapacitated, and on her death bed, at 95 in 1979... Doesn't sound like a sympathy visit... (Even minor works by Thomson are selling for astronomic amounts these days.) Ms Murray further reports that McMichael also pressured the family of AY Jackson - they did not want to do it, but he pushed - to sell him AY sketches until they relented, and did so at bargain basement prices. McMichael then "donated" them to the museum at far higher, full market prices, to get back a juicy resulting tax grab for himself... So that's how you make a buck in the art world, oh, and get the Order of Canada...

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The Totem Carvers, Phil Nuytten 1982
Orig. book - Size - 22 x 29cm
Found - Fort Rupert, BC
From the personal library of Calvin Hunt, a master Kwakwaka'wakw carver himself, a wonderfully heartfelt pictorial book by an insider who knew Ellen since childhood and captures, with great sympathy, the three finest pioneer Kwakwaka'wakw carvers of the 20th century: Charlie James, Mungo Martin, and Ellen Neel.
The Neel Family in the early days, when Hope sprang eternal...

Sadly, as so many passionate artists have learned to their dismay, art is, above all, a money making business, and support funding is heavily sought out by lawyers, and agent friends with access to those who wield the purse strings. Like in the music industry, film and television, it is the middle men , the go-between's, the representing agents, with the schmoozing touch, who rake in the most moolah, and leave only crumbs for the artists themselves...

Today Ellenah rests here in the Kwakwaka'wakw cemetery in Alert Bay where her youthful laughter once enlivened the place and cheered up everyone she met.

She lies here with Charlie James, and Mungo Martin, the grandfather and uncle who inspired her, and taught her the traditions and heritage of her ancestors, enabling her, more than any other Indian artist, to pass the totem pole heritage of the North West Coastal people on to non-Aboriginal Canadians.

If there is any justice in the world perhaps someday they will be allowed to return... or get fair compensation for their irretrievable loss...

Today Canadians who want to see Ellen Neel's work can go to Stanley Park in Vancouver where her Thunderbird Pole, which she carved in 1955, for Woodward's Department Store, dominates the area set aside to honour the best work of her fellow Indian artists.

It will forever be a sad symbol front left of the artist cut off in her prime, denied the opportunity to live out her normal life span enjoyed by the average white citizen, a rude indictment of a society, which refuses, then, as now, to recognize and take meaningful remedial action to fight Indian poverty, which denies them the rights to enjoy the benefits of Canadian citizenship enjoyed by white peoples, including the freedom to prosper, not die before their time...

How many more Ellen Neels must Canada lose?

More of Ellen's totem poles from the 1950s and early 60s, mostly about 40 cms high. The one below is 86 cm from 1950.

Pass it on...

Go Tell the National Gallery of Canada

To Sell the "Voice of an American," left
and use the millions it paid to get it,
to Buy, and Preserve, instead,
Great Canadian Art by
Great Canadian Aboriginal Artists
like Norval Morrisseau, and Ellen Neel.

Two Powerful Women Pioneers - Below, Ellen Neel in happier times, when the future seemed bright, presenting one of her famous Totemland poles to Maria Tallchief (b.1925). Maria was an Osage Indian from Oklahoma who was prima ballerina at the New York City Ballet and married to famed choreographer George Balanchine. She became America's pre-eminent dancer in the 1940s and 50s, and was declared Woman of the Year by President Eisenhower in 1953.

Simple proof that when given the opportunity, instead of being racially excluded, Canadian and American aboriginal peoples, and their art, need take second place to no one... not even the Group of Seven...

Go to Charlie James
theCanadaSite.com
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