The “Idiot Sticks”: Kwakwaka’wakw carving and cultural resistance in commercial art production on the Northwest Coast

Jack Davy

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Between 1884 and 1951 a ban on potlatching prohibited Indigenous communities of British Columbia from practicing traditional economic, ceremonial, and political activities, restricting them to state-sanctioned gatherings and celebrations. Unable to perform traditional dances and wear the associated regalia, Native artistic practices, in particular carving, began to fall into disuse as demand dried up. Restricted to only a few artistic forms permitted by local authorities, carvers turned to the growing tourist market, a field dominated by non-Native dealers but also disdained by government as inauthentic and, thus, ostensibly non-threatening. Among art forms most popular with the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Vancouver Island and the corresponding British Columbia coast were model totem poles, which have often been overlooked as facile souvenir art and even sometimes derided as “idiot sticks.”

In reality, however, drawing from both historical accounts and contemporary interviews with Kwakwaka’wakw carvers, this article demonstrates that these model totem poles were a subversive method of Indigenous defiance of Canadian authority. Carvers satirically enacted resistance through these model poles, not only mocking those who would presume to judge without knowledge, but in preserving information for future generations, could ensure the survival of traditional designs and techniques and register protest at their treatment by non-Native government and society
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-46
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican Indian Culture and Research Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Indigenous studies
  • American Studies
  • anthropology
  • art

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