Located outside Brock Hall on East Mall, this pole is a replica of Neel’s original, which was given to the Alma Mater Society by the artist in 1948. Neel presented the pole to the AMS in front of a crowd of 6,000 people at the old Varsity Stadium during the intermission of the homecoming football game. Along with the pole, Chief William Scow of the Kwicksutaineuk Nation granted the University permission to use the symbol and name “Thunderbird” for UBC athletics.
The pole tells the story of Tsi-kumi, who overcomes four tests to become Chief Shaman of the Red Cedar Bark Dance and founder of Qui-Owa Sutinuk, ancestors of the carver. Neel wanted the pole to acknowledge and empower Indigenous populations and make visible the commitment made to them by UBC. Neel dedicated the totem with the following statement:
To the Native people of the whole province we can give our assurance that your children will be accepted at this school by the Staff and Student Council, eager to smooth their paths with kindness and understanding. We need now only students to take advantage of the opportunity, so that some day our doctors, lawyers, social workers and departmental workers will be fully trained University graduates of our own race. (Ellen Neel, The Native Voice, November, 1948)
After years of exposure to the elements and incidents of vandalism, the pole was removed in 1973. The AMS hired Douglas Cranmer, a nephew of Ellen Neel, to restore the pole. After the repair, it was erected near the Student Union Building.
In 2001, the University had to remove the pole again after it had been severely damaged by vandals. Carvers Calvin Hunt, Mervin Child and John Livingston were hired to create a replica, which was dedicated in 2004 as a reaffirmation of UBC’s commitment to stand in solidarity with Indigenous students and to work towards increasing their representation on campus. (According to UBC Public Affairs, in 2004 only one percent, equivalent to 500 people, of the student body.) At this time, the Musqueam gave permission to the Neel and Scow families to locate the pole on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.
Neel (1916-1966) was an artist and carver from Alert Bay on Vancouver Island and the granddaughter of Yakuglas, Charlie James, a Kwakwaka’wakw carver who produced the house posts in Stanley Park. She moved to Vancouver with her husband in 1943, where they opened Totem Art Studios and later a workshop at Ferguson Point in Stanley Park. Neel is known as the first woman totem pole carver and was instrumental in helping to revitalize the carving tradition in the Kwakwaka’wakw community. Her artistic legacy continues for generations through her impact on countless Northwest Coast artists, including her own grandson David A. Neel and Kwakwaka’wakw carver and activist Beau Dick (1955-2017).