cedar log lies alongside a modest shed on the Tyee Spit - a wind-swept
finger of land at the Campbell River waterfront. Here on the shores
of Discovery Passage, not much has changed in hundreds of years.
Inside the carving shed, a rich, resinous scent prevails and soft
shavings carpet the floor. Gale-force winds pummel a canvas flap
at one end of the shed, but a crackling woodstove radiates warmth.
This is a place where magic happens.
It is here that Master Carver Bill Henderson works his magic. An
artisan with roots dating back hundreds of years, he is widely considered
to be a dominant presence among the Island’s Native artists. Internationally
known and honoured, his traditional Kwakwaka’wakw totem poles can
be found in private collections, museums and theme parks around
With skilled hands, he will shape the cedar’s heart until the wood
speaks of legends and a history that pre-dates European first contact
with this land. Bill’s totems are masterpieces, dramatic and skillfully
Hundreds of Henderson totem poles have journeyed to the four corners
of the world, monuments to a rich culture that has been part of
the Island’s history for millennia. Perhaps as far back as 10,000
years ago, Native groups inhabited northern Vancouver Island. The
Kwakwaka’wakw are one of seven principal tribes that make up the
totem pole carving people. In ‘Indian History of British Columbia’,
Wilson Duff refers to the totem as "one of the peaks of human achievement
in wood sculpture." The totem, more than anything else, has come
to symbolize the aboriginal tribes who first inhabited coastal B.C.
Totems as aboriginal monuments are magnificent to behold, but the
message of a pole can often be understood only by the carver. In
the creation of each totem, Bill relates a story through the use
of animal, bird, fish, human or mythological beings and symbols.
Dramatic, powerful, mysterious, ominous, symbolic; the totem was,
to the Kwakwaka’wakw people, a text book in a time before written
language existed. For centuries, the history of their nation consisted
of lore and mythology transmitted through art and by word of mouth.
Much like a coat-of-arms, the totem allowed the chief and his family
to pass on their history, legends and traditions.
Of dozens of totems adorning key locations in Campbell River’s downtown
core, all but two are Henderson poles, carved by Bill, his father
Sam (1905-1982), or his brother Ernie, now deceased. Their totems
grace the front of schools, commercial buildings, shopping developments
and waterfront parks. When the House of Thunder bighouse was built
in 1997, Bill was commissioned to create the four corner poles.
The ancestors can rest in peace, for the rich culture, legends and
folklore of this Northwest Pacific group are alive and well at Campbell
River. As a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, Bill is passionately
committed to preserving his heritage through art and ceremony. Of
the ability and responsibility to carve, he simply explains, "This
is our life, this is what we were taught."
Bill works to capture natural and supernatural figures in his work;
legend and history are infused into each carving. In crafting eagles,
bears and killer whales, he depicts how the resources of air, land
and sea were important and life-giving to his people.
Bill Henderson was born into the Weiwaikum tribe on March 21, 1950,
one of nine sons of the late Chief Sam Henderson and his wife May
Quocksister Henderson. As a child, Bill learned the ways of an artist
by watching his father, a self-taught carver. Sam and May Henderson
are well-remembered as protectors of ancient customs, and they instilled
in all their children respect for their cultural heritage.
At age seven, Bill carved a little whale plaque for his Grade 1
teacher; it is still proudly displayed at Campbellton School. Young
Bill would draw and paint stylized figures from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology
on pieces of left-over plywood in his father’s shed – a shed he
has carved in now for nearly half a century.
In his late teens, Bill took up carving more seriously and at 19
he began to sell his work. Since then, he has honed his skills while
preserving the family’s traditional style in carvings, dance masks,
paddles, bowls and plaques. While he was always drawn to painting
and the culture of carving, Bill never dreamed that his work would
become sought-after in a global marketplace.
International Native art collectors know Bill’s phone number; he
is invited aboard foreign yachts docked at Campbell River. Travelers
stopping at the Tsawwassen ferry can admire one of Bill’s totems
inside the terminal. Across the border, an 18-foot totem occupies
a place of honor on a Seattle float house. A native theme park at
the New York zoo features a Bill Henderson totem.
Over the years, Bill has carved over a thousand masks for private
collectors or ceremonial dances. The masks represent figures from
Indian mythology or legend, and bring images of long ago to life
with music, movement and song. Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial regalia
is one of the most elaborate of all the Northwest Coast tribes.
A professional Native dancer, Bill performs at numerous potlatches
and ceremonies. The symbolism of the mystic character he portrays
in dance can be seen in his art, be it the Crooked-Beak-of-Heaven,
the Grizzly Bear, or the Sea-Monster. The dance ‘Hunter of the Woods’
was given to Bill by his father during a potlatch; it belongs to
The Museum at Campbell River has Bill’s ceremonial masks on permanent
display. One large, powerful mask describes the legend of Yagis,
or "Bad Thing from the Sea", a powerful sea-monster that causes
storms and threatens fishers. In the museum’s Sewidi collection,
Bill’s "Octopus" mask features eight tentacles that can be manipulated
independently by the dancer.
An achievement he's proud of is the creation of ceremonial regalia
for other chiefs' lineages. On nearby Quadra Island, Bill’s art
is part of the ceremonial regalia exhibit at the Kwagiulth Museum
and Cultural Centre, and a Henderson totem graces the museum entrance.
At Ishikari, Japan, one of Bill’s totems stands in front of city
hall - a ‘sister city’ gift from Campbell River in 1993.
Three majestic Henderson totems stand at the entrance to Wei Wai
Kum House of Treasures at Discovery Harbour Shopping Centre. One
30-foot pole is topped by a powerful mythical bird, with a whale
and a bear holding a salmon beneath. A beaming sun figure tops the
larger 40-foot pole, with a man beneath holding copper – a sign
of wealth. The third pole is topped by an eagle with the three-headed
serpent beneath. The heads on a totem are large to give the creature
a fearsome look, while the body is small. Traditional Kwakwaka’wakw
colours of deep green, red and black predominate.
The creative traditions of the Henderson family are now being nurtured
by a third generation; Bill mentors his nephews, Junior, 24, and
Greg, 31. Using methods handed down through time, they still fashion
all their own tools; blades from old net fishing knives are bent,
tempered, sharpened and then attached to cedar handles with fishing
At a Tennessee zoo this summer, Bill, Greg, Junior and Mark Henderson
were all present at pole-raising ceremonies for twin totems carved
earlier this year. Today at Campbell River, the Hendersons are usually
in the carving shed working dreams in cedar.
When the Henderson children were young, an aunt would tell them
bed-time stories, dream-weaving tales from a mystical past. Katie
Adams is now 100 years old, and the stories live on in the carvings.
Bill dreams of carving a giant, opened clam shell; from inside the
shell will creep the cockle-hunters that come in the night. When
that vision is created, another legend of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation
will be preserved.
Christine Scott is a Campbell River writer and periodic contributor
to the Islander.