Born in 1950, John takes the Bear as his family crest. His father was who first began teaching him canoe carving techniques when he was just 7 years old. In his teens, he spent time with his uncle Spencer in Alert Bay working on totem poles. Adopted into the family of Jack James in his twenties, John Gibson (Stomish) has spent the majority of his life carving masks and totem poles from Alder.
Totem Pole by Stomish (John Gibson)
Master of the Winter Ceremonies, Thunderbird is a massive, mystical and powerful bird who creates thunder by beating his wings, and whose eyes flash with lightening. Thunderbird is so strong he can lift whales into the sky. For this reason, Thunderbird is associated with sustenance, as he was called upon during times of difficulty. Thunderbird is credited with bringing whales to the people, which they would sometimes follow for days before they were able to strike.
Thunderbird is central in many legends on the Pacific Northwest Coast. One of the stories about Thunderbird involves a young boy named Twisted Foot, who isn’t permitted to carve with the men because he is crippled. He sets off in a little craft, rowing far away from the village, feeling hurt and ashamed for being the subject of ridicule and rejection. On his journey, he meets Thunderbird. Twisted Foot tells Thunder Bird that if he could have the chance to carve with the men, he would carve Thunder Bird at the very top of his totem pole. Thunder Bird is quite impressed with this idea, and so he lifts Twisted Foot and his little boat into his wings, and flies him home. Of course, Twisted Foot was received with honor and was never teased again. And he kept his promise to carve Thunder Bird at the top of the Totem Pole, which is why to this day Thunder Bird is never seen anywhere else on any Totem Pole he graces.
Thunderbird, Eagle and Kolus look very similar, but one way to decipher a Thunderbird from the others is to look for his ear appendage, which sits on top but near the back of his head, and curls back. Eagle’s appendage is not curled and Kolus’s appendage is reminiscent of a rectangular shaped feather that is positioned horizontally above his head.
Killer Whale is a traveler and guardian. Symbolizing both power and beauty, Killer Whales are significant of love and kinship, as they mate for life, travel with their pods and are fierce protectors of their young.
The Haida believe that Killer Whales are equivalent to humans, and that their undersea world societies are deeply complex. Killer Whale belongs to both the Eagle and Raven moieties of the Haida. Killer Whale is depicted differently, depending on affiliation to a particular clan. Killer Whales associated with Eagle Clan have a white stripe across the base of their dorsal fin, whereas those correlated with Raven Clan are black and do not have the stripe. If a Killer Whale has a hole in his fin, it is because he is associated with the supernatural realm. In design, the hole is marked as a round circle.
Killer Whales are considered Ancestors of many tribes on Vancouver Island, and as such, are thought to live in deep undersea villages, where they can take off their skin to emulate human beings.
Killer Whale remains one of the most commonly depicted motifs in Northwest Coast Art, perhaps second to Raven – an indication of prominence and importance.
On the Pacific Northwest Coast, Bears are correlated with humans, as both rely on berries and salmon for sustenance. Bear is also considered an ancestor, and as such, are revered as a friend to man rather than a threat.
Bears weave a special connection between spawning salmon and the health of the forests they live in, as salmon are full of nitrogen which acts as a superb fertilizer for the forest. During the spawn, Bears take advantage of their opportunity to benefit from the abundant food supply by eating their favorite parts and discarding what they fancy less. In general, it is said that Bears only consume about 5% of any given salmon they pull from streams during the return, which is why Bears have been given significant credit by the scientific community, for helping to maintain the health of the forest.
To identify a bear, look for a short snout, canine teeth, small ears, claws, and a short tail. Bears are often depicted with salmon, cubs, and humans. Wolf and Bear can look quite similar on jewellery, with the wolf having a much longer snout and tail. To differentiate Bear from Sea Bear, look for fish-scales where Bear would otherwise have fur.
Traditionally, owls are known for being the messenger of bad omens or death; however, Franz Boaz recorded George Hunts explanation of the owl in Kwakwaka’wakw society, which is that all men and women possess the owl mask, and at death, move towards that mask and become an owl. He explained that to shoot an owl was the same charge as to murder a human, and that if one asked an owl their name, the owl would answer.
In other First Nations cultures, owls are believed to speak the languages of all the people. Owl is depicted with large round eyes, and a small, curved beak. Owls are sometimes illustrated sitting on tree branches, or in soaring motion, as one who is focused on the hunt.
Often viewed as sly and cunning, clever Wolf is a storyteller known for valuing kinship. The social organization of wolves is very similar to both Killer Whales and Humans, as they mate for life and travel in packs. They are fierce protectors of their young, and cooperate as a team.
Abstract Wolf and Bear designs can look quite similar, so always look for a long snout, a small, elegant paw, and a long tail vs a short snout, claw and short tail seen on bear designs.
The wolf at the base of this pole is actually a Sea Wolf - noticeable by the fins on his back and his curled horns.
Cheryl Shearar Understanding Northwest Coast Art (2000)
Campbell River Museum & Archives
Conversations with Ehattesaht Artist Cecil Billy
Franz Boas Indian Myths & Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America: A Translation of Franz Boas' 1895 Edition of Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Kuste Amerikas (2006)