Ellen Neel belonged to the Qui-qwa-sutinok tribe of Gilford Island and Kingcome Inlet. She was one of the first well known female Northwest Coast artists. Charlie James was her grandfather and Mungo Martin was her uncle. As a girl, she was much interested in watching her grandfather carve, and, working at his side, she used to carve the small totem poles and other items they made for sale. By the time she was fourteen she “had the spirit of carving,” her grandfather told her, and she collaborated with him on a book of designs commissioned by a Vancouver art collector.
In her early twenties, she married Ted Neel, who would become her assistant and manager. They had six children, all of whom assisted with the family business but life through the Depression years was difficult for them.
In 1948, Ellen Neel was given a workshop in Stanley Park, Vancouver, and was made Chief Carver for the Parks Board. In 1953, she carved a totem pole to be placed outside of Brock Hall on the University of British Columbia campus. The pole was repainted, treated for weather by Doug Cranmer and moved to the front of the Student Union Building.
Ellen Neel passed away in 1966. Her carvings are included in many important private and public collections.