Family wants trail-blazing grandmother's carving contributions to receive more recognition

·2 min read
A red cedar mask, Dsonakwa, carved by Ellen Neel in 1955.  (Courtesy of the Lattimer Gallery  - image credit)
A red cedar mask, Dsonakwa, carved by Ellen Neel in 1955. (Courtesy of the Lattimer Gallery - image credit)

Kwakwaka'wakw carver Ellen Neel began carving in the 1930s and was among the first famous female carvers on the Northwest Coast but her story is little known outside art circles and Indigenous communities — something her family is hoping to change.

Lou-ann Neel, Ellen Neel's granddaughter, was only three years old when the elder Neel died. Neel never met her grandmother, but when she took up her own artistic practice as a designer she began to see a resemblance between her work and her grandmother's.

"I was really inspired by her work when I started to learn about it in my teenage years and I wondered why I couldn't find any information about her when I went to the library, and later when the internet became available, there still wasn't all that much information about her," Neel told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

Born in 1916, Ellen Neel was one of the first professional female carvers of her era, going on to carve iconic totem poles for Stanley Park and the University of British Columbia.

She created the Totemland Pole for the Totemland Society, a group that promoted the City of Vancouver. Neel would carve a creation for prominent guests and celebrities who visited Vancouver, including Katherine Hepburn and Bob Hope.

Actress Katherine Hepburn receives a totem pole carved by Ellen Neel from Harry Duker of the Totem Land Society.
Actress Katherine Hepburn receives a totem pole carved by Ellen Neel from Harry Duker of the Totem Land Society.(VPL Special Collections)

Lou-ann Neel, however, says her grandmother wasn't the only female carver and there were many others who carved in Northwest Coast communities at the time. She referred to a conversation with the late Tony Hunt, another Kwakwaka'wakw artist, who said both men and women were taught how to carve.

"He said there might have been a time when there were certain items for ceremony that may have been carved only by men, and at the same time, certain items that may have only been carved by women," Neel said.

Colonial incursions, including the potlatch ban and the imposition of a patriarchal culture where women are excluded, contributed to Ellen Neel's contributions perhaps not getting the recognition they deserved, said Neel.

"The 40s, 50s, 60s, were pretty low-key in terms of promoting women as carvers. Because the narrative had really sunken in and taken hold," said Neel.

Lou-ann Neel wants the world to know more about her grandmother, Ellen Neel, a master Kwakwaka’wakw carver.
Lou-ann Neel wants the world to know more about her grandmother, Ellen Neel, a master Kwakwaka’wakw carver. (Beth Carter/Submitted by Lou-ann Neel)

Neel said there's been more recognition of her grandmother in the last 20 years, and she wants to credit her for her extraordinary vision.

"She talked about wanting to see our designs on everyday clothing and home decor and all of the things we see now in the marketplace and take for granted," said Neel.

"She was a force to be reckoned with."

Listen to the segment on CBC's The Early Edition here: