Ellen Neel


November 14, 1916 (d. 1966)

Alert Bay, BC

Ellen Neel is known as one of the first famous female Northwest Coast artists. Her Kwakwaka'wakw name was Kakaso'las, which translates to "People Who Come to Seek Her Advice." Ellen was born to Charles Newman and Lucy Lilac James. She was also the niece of celebrated Kwakwaka'wakw totem pole carver Mungo Martin. Ellen started training under her grandfather, Charlie James, at an early age, and was selling small totem poles to tourists by the age of 12. She quit school at the age of 18, and at 21, she met her husband, Edward (Ted) Neel. In 1943, Ellen moved to Vancouver with her six children. Ted suffered his first stroke in 1946, which eventually led Ellen to carve full-time with Ted helping administer the business. She began training her children to carve, and during the summer months, the family had a stand in Stanley Park. The family worked together to survive in the big city until Ellen completed the Totemland Pole for the Totemland Society, a promotional group for Vancouver, which served as a financial breakthrough. This development also resulted in Ellen establishing her trademark Totemland Pole design: a Thunderbird with a round, green-and-blue globe, and a kneeling human figure. As a speaker at the Conference on Native Indian Affairs in 1948, Ellen furthered her career and became an established artist. This same year, Ellen was commissioned to create a 16-foot pole for UBC. In 1955, Woodward’s Department Store commissioned a large pole, and this pole now stands in Stanley Park’s Brockton Oval. Ellen's legacy very much lives on British Columbia, and her poles can be found throughout the Lower Mainland. Her grandson, David Neel, is a carver, jeweller, painter, photographer, and author working in North Vancouver. Ellen Neel passed away on February 3, 1966.