Totem Poles: A Once Towering Tradition Risen Again
Totems tell stories—ancient stories, magnificent stories, tragic stories, triumphant stories. They are usually carved from a single tree, often from towering cedars so ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest and western coastal Canada. Totems embody not only the spirit of the tree, but the spirits of animals from which so much of native life is derived and inspired, as well as the spirits of ancestors and their stories, and sometimes the spirits of mighty mythological creatures or gods. Totems are the Native equivalent of the white man’s Bible: sacred, brimming with allegory, derived from the divine, and often recording a family’s ancestors.
Although the world and even many Americans may associate totem poles with Native Americans in general, totem poles were originally an ancient tradition of only a few specific tribes in a relatively small area of the continent: the Pacific Northwest, western coastal Canada, and Alaska. Six tribes are most often associated with the totem tradition: the Haida of the northern Northwest Coast, the Tlingit and Tsimshian in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia; the Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth in southern British Columbia; and the Coast Salish in Washington and British Columbia.
Because totems were carved from cedar trees and wood eventually decays in the moist, rainy climate of the coastal Pacific Northwest, very few ancient totems remain that were carved before 1900. (Some dating to about 1880 have been preserved in museums such as the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria; the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia in Vancouver; the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, and the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Because there are few ancient totem relics remaining, the history of totem poles before about 1700 is uncertain. But modern research is gradually yielding more and more clues. Early European explorers and trappers along the western coast told of exterior and interior house totems The earliest known record believed to depict a totem pole is from the Pacific coast voyages of Captain James Cook in 1778, when his ship’s artist, John Webber, sketched ceremonial interior poles depicting faces.
Prior to the 1800s, the lack of efficient carving tools and leisure time to devote to the craft may have limited the number of elaborately carved, freestanding poles. Before iron and steel arrived in the area, axes were unknown. Natives used tools made of stone, shells, or beaver teeth for carving and the process was slow and laborious. It is believed that, by the late eighteenth century, the use of metal cutting tools enabled more complex carvings and increased production of totem poles.
The later 1700s and 1800s may have been the golden era for the most spectacular and elaborate totem poles when iron tools were introduced. But the soaring art would be cut short by the decimation and diaspora of Native tribes that plagued Natives in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, just as it did in the Great Plains and all reaches of the North American continent. Government policies in both the United States and Canada forbid the practice of totem carving and the practice of Native religion and traditional cultural practices were discouraged by Christian missionaries as being pagan. In fact, missionaries required tribes and individuals to burn their poles as testament of their acceptance of Christianity.
Still, carving continued in some remote villages or in secret potlatches or inside homes. Rare totems could still be found standing even until 1905. But as villages died out or were abandoned, the totems and the homes rotten away or were vandalized.
In the late 1930s, cultural scholars and an educated and empathetic public began to show interest in the art of totem pole carving. Whispers of the ancient tradition began to return, as if on the wind. In 1938, as part of Roosevelt’s CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and WPA (Works Progress Administration) that showed special interest in reviving art, folk art and cultural traditions, prompted the U.S. Forest Service to start a program reconstructing and preserving old totem poles. They salvaged about 200—
roughly a third of those still standing in the U.S. at the time.
It was not until the 1960s that a renewed interest in Native identity, culture and traditions brought back totem pole carving in full bloom. Finally, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 made it once again legal for Native Americans to practice their religion and their art. First, colorful totem poles began rising from the earth up and down the western coasts of Alaska, Canada, Washington, then farther south.
But it didn’t stop there. Native artists in many tribes beyond Alaska and the Pacific Northwest began carving and exploring the Native art. As tourists and international travelers admired the touring works of art, totem mania spread around the world. Today, totem—those made by the original totem-making tribes and those of contemporary artists—can be found on all continents of the globe.
It’s not surprising that the world over is enamored of totem poles. The artform embodies both hearts and hands, is organic and spiritual, rooted in the earth but reaching toward the sky, with a visual eloquence and flamboyance beautifully unique to Native American art. Totem poles have risen again— this time to be honored and cherished—for good and forever.
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