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About your work with third grade students studying the totem poles
of Northwest Coast native peoples, I had a few thoughts. I hope you don't
mind me sharing them with you and hope that you understand the spirit in
which they are given.
To a certain extent, I believe that we non-natives from another
time and another place are ill-equipped to discuss the "symbolism" of these
monumental carvings. The Spanish and English explorers of the early 19th
century described the house frontal painted carvings and the upright posts
set in the ground which served as tombs of the chiefs, as "grotesque." The
carvings were called "idols." Captain George Vancouver's comment on the
highly unusual objects and frontal carvings he encounted was, "too remote
or hieroglyphical for our comprehension."
Unable to deciper the heavily encoded meanings of the carvings, many
non-natives came to view them as impressive works of art.
The famous Canadian artist Emily Carr was one of a handful of
people in her day (turn of the century) to recognizethe the incredible
value of totem carvings in the remote villages which were becoming
uninhabited. Disease and disruptions like residential schools, forced the
people from their way of life.(There's a good web site about Carr that
shows her paintings of totem
John and Carolyn Smyley write in "Those Born at Koona," "In 1935,
when the City of Prince Rupert decided to salvage some of the totems of old
Skedans and preserve them in the City Park, there was no longer anyone left
alive who could identify the figures on the poles. When people asked as
they invariably do did and still do, "What do the poles mean?" the answers
had to come from the writings of anthropologists such as John Swanton."
Swantons information outlines a complex system of clans, wealth and
privilege. Certain songs, dances and "crests" were sacred to certain
families and no one could copy them without permission. Infringement could
be grounds for battle. Haida "heraldic devices" took the form of land and
sea animals, birds, natural and super-natural phenomena. Each carving was
tied in with stories, songs and the inherited privileges of the clan. They
epitomised everything of value to the Haida: the great beauty and mystery
of the natural world around them,family connections, family priviledge,
family weath, family honor, and the family stories. Swanton goes in to
great detail about the use of certain animals by certain clans.
I know that the totem pole is a much used object of art and craft
projects in schools, scout groups etc. But using plastic buckets, or paper
bags somehow doesn't acknowledge the importance of the use and
understanding of wood by the northwest coast peoples. Theys used every
part of the cedar tree: roots, inner bark, twigs and trunk. From the cedar
and other trees came house planks used for huge communal houses, posts
often 100 feet in length, large and small canoes, storage boxes that held
food supplies (made from steamed planks with fitted bottoms and lids, sewn
with bark thread), tool handles, clothing, baskets, mats and hats. These
peoples were not only incredible carvers, they were painters,their
exquisite designs found on many of the above item. Only this kind of
contact with a medium wood provide an opportunity for such full sculpture
as seen in totem carvings.
So, what's my point anyway? Its just that it isn't easy to sum up
"the culture" of groups of people. It isn't easy or it shouldnt be too easy
to use subjects from other cultures as objects of our own. And that totem
poles, ukranian easter eggs, kachina dolls and so on, fully exist or
existed, in a context that has nothing to do with us or our desires to
understand, comprehend and use them. Thanks. peggy woolsey