Richmondite helps totem pole find rightful home

How James Heish, a Richmond chartered accountant originally from Taiwan, came to be the guardian of a valuable Wuikinuxv totem pole takes us back 40 years ago.

That’s when Heish worked as an audit manager and tax supervisor. His role sometimes led him to travel to indigenous territories across B.C. to provide accounting training for residents. One of his frequent business trips took him to Bella Coola - located on the Central British Columbia coast.

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“I still remembered, I changed planes three times before landing in Bella Coola. The traveling process could be arduous, but it was an eye-opening experience for me. I saw the land covered with mushrooms I had never seen before and beautiful streams were flowing along the route,” said Heish.

But it wasn’t just the overwhelming nature that left an impression, it was also the people. Heish made many friends throughout the ten years he worked with that community. One of those friends was the tribe’s manager. 

Eventually, Heish left that job and began teaching accounting at Simon Fraser University.

Settled back into his life in Richmond, Heish lost touch with his friends up in Bella Coola, until about 12 years ago when a familiar name popped up in his email inbox.

It was the tribe manager, who had since moved to Vancouver. In the email, he told Heish about a three-foot totem pole he had brought with him. A pole, he said, he took where ever he went.

“He really cherished this craft as it was carved by well-known indigenous artist, Frank Hanuse, whose work has been sold mostly in Germany and other European countries. 

“He also told me the market value of the pole was about $4,000. That was in 2008,” recalled Heish, who also showed the back and forth email conversations with the manager to the News. 

The manager eventually asked Heish if he knew of any collectors who would be willing to pay $2,500 to take the pole on loan because he needed the money for his family. The manager added that he would buy the pole back for $5,000 the following year. 

“Thinking of my past 10 years of working and living with them, I decided to help him. So the next day, I took him the $2,500, and he handed me the pole in return. He told me if I didn’t hear from him the next year, the pole officially belongs to me,” said Heish. 

Years went by, but the man never returned to buy back his totem pole. Rather, it has sat proudly in Heish’s home as a beautiful work of art.

“The totem pole offers a glimpse of Wuikinuxv native art. It was created to honor three kings from our nature - the killer whale from our open ocean, the grizzly bear from our rainforest and the eagle from the blue sky.”

But while it’s a moving representation of nature, it also represents a whole culture and the Wuikinuxv people -- and that’s where things get problematic. 

“The pole is light, but I feel heavy while holding it up in my hand as it represents an individual, a family or a whole tribe’s history and stories. I would feel very regretful if the pole couldn’t be seen by others to empower them with the strength to move into the future,” said Heish. 

When Heish recently down-sided into a condo after retiring as a senior lecturer at SFU, he realized it was time to give the totem pole the home it deserves.

Heish has reached out to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA), which has an internationally acclaimed collection of First Nations art and artifacts. Staff there were thrilled with the offer to donate the pole, saying it would be a great addition to MOA’s collection of Wuikinuxv artifacts. 

Heish will officially donate the totem pole to MOA sometime in August.

“It has been a long process, but I am so glad that the pole finally goes to where it belongs. I’ve fulfilled my duty, and there are no regrets left for me,” said Heish. 

“The fascinating thing about the pole is that the color on it has never faded. No matter how many years have passed by, or how grey my hair has turned or how wrinkled my face has become, the colour of the pole is as bright as usual. I couldn’t believe it,” said Heish. 

Heish admits the thought of selling the carving at auction has crossed his mind in the past, “but there was an inner voice whispering, warning me that’s not right to do,” said Heish. 

“I didn’t want to see our nation’s treasure being buried or getting lost in the community. It should go to where it belongs. Now I can enjoy my retirement without any concerns,” said Heish.

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