Ellen May Neel was the first and most famous female carver of West Coast totem poles. She was born in 1916 at Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Her parents were Charles Newman, an American sailor, and Lucy James, daughter of the famous Kwakwaka’wakw totem pole carver, Charlie James. From an early age, Ellen learned to draw and carve at her grandfather’s side and, as a youngster, made small totem poles for tourists at Alert Bay.
Ellen married Edward Neel and they had six children. In 1943, the family moved to Vancouver. When Edward suffered a stroke and was unable to work full-time, Ellen and her children began carving mini totem poles in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition for tourists. Realizing the popularity of their craft, the City of Vancouver provided them with a workshop in Stanley Park.
Ellen was commissioned to restore damaged totem poles and to carve full-size totem poles such as the Thunderbird Pole in Stanley Park, which she carved in 1955 for the Woodward’s department store. As the popularity of her mini totem poles grew, the art community began to debate the artistic merits of the modern craft, some contending that only the traditional full-size totem poles warranted attention. Ellen strongly countered that misconception in an address at the University of British Columbia in 1948:
Our art continues to live, for not only is it part and parcel of us, but can be a powerful factor in combining the best part of Indian culture into the fabric of a truly Canadian art form…. Were it not for the interest created by the tourist trade, the universities and the museums, we would no longer have any of our people capable of producing this art.1
In 1961, her son and protégé David, died in a car accident. Ellen’s physical and mental health deteriorated. Unable to pull herself out of poverty (and having been denied a Canada Council grant), her caving tools and family heirlooms were sold for cash. She died in Vancouver in February 1966 of ill health and was laid to rest in the Kwakwaka’wakw cemetery in Alert Bay.
“To me, the art is a living symbol of the gaiety, the laughter and the love of colour of my people – a day-to-day reminder that even we had something of glory and honour, before the white man came.” – Ellen Neel, 1948
Kramer, Pat. Totem Poles. Canmore, Alberta: Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd., 2004.
Neel, Ellen. Address at University of British Columbia, April 1948. Website: http://www.neel.org/2008/04/10/the-words-of-ellen-neel-april-1948.
“Totem Pole Carver Ellen Neel 1916-1966.” The Great Canadian Website.