Totem Poles of the North American Northwest Coast Indians
The North American Northwest Coast Indians of the past had no written language. How can we know about them or their past culture if they left no books? All they left behind was their material culture, their artifacts, their things. Yet these artifacts are a great legacy for they tell us as much about the culture as a written record. As Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi stated in his book The Meaning of Things: “Things embody goals, make skills manifest and shape the identities of their users.” Through the study and analysis of artifacts, students can gain valuable knowledge and insight into the, creators and their culture. Objects are visual records of what their makers considered important or significant, and learning occurs through looking at and analyzing the concrete object. Reciprocally, our own culture speaks or expresses itself through our own objects. It is important that students understand that learning and communicating are not limited to reading and writing. Visual perception and awareness also play a part in the learning process.
are monumental sculptures carved from great trees, typically Western Redcedar, by a number of Native American cultures along the Pacific northwest coast of North America. the center of pole construction was centered around the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands, from whence it spread outward to the Tsimshian and Tlingit and then down the coast to the tribes of British Columbia and northern Washington. The designs themselves are generally considered the property of a particular clan or family group, and this ownership may not be transferred to the owner of a pole (See also Heraldry). As such, pictures, paintings, and other copies of the designs may be an infringement of posessory rights of a certain family or cultural group. Thus it is important that the ownership of the artistic designs represented on a pole are respected as private property to the same extent that the pole itself is property. Public display and sale of pictures and other representations of totem pole designs should be cleared with both the owners of the pole and the cultural group or tribal government associated with the designs on the pole.
The poles used for public ridicule are usually called "shame poles", and were erected to shame individuals or groups for unpaid debts. Shame poles are today rarely discussed, and their meanings have in many places been forgotten. However they formed an important subset of poles carved throughout the 19th century.
One famous shame pole is the Lincoln Pole in Saxman, Alaska; it was apparently created to shame the U.S. government into repaying the Tlingit people for the value of slaves which were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation. Other explanations for it have arisen as the original reason was forgotten or suppressed, however this meaning is still clearly recounted by a number of Tlingit elders today.
10/29/14 A Totem Pole History: The Work of Lummi Carver Joe Hillaire.
By Pauline Hillaire. Edited by Gregory P. Fields. 2013. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 360 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8032-4097-1 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Bruce Granville Miller, University of British Columbia firstname.lastname@example.org. [Word count: 1078 words]
This is a book the editor and senior author struggled to title. It concerns the late Joe Hillaire, a member of the Lummi Nation, a Coast Salish people in northern Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands of Washington state, who is described as an "artist-diplomat." Hillaire, who died in 1967, was a master carver who brought his tribe's work to the national and world stage while advocating for reconciliation between Aboriginal people and the mainstream. Several chapters by contemporary carvers describe Hillaire's influence on their own work and thinking. The book is also by and about his daughter, Pauline Hillaire, now a senior elder, who took the political fight for Lummi rights a step farther. But the book, in addition, is an engaging look at Coast Salish culture, with descriptions of spiritual, artistic, and healing practices. Pauline Hillaire contributed the bulk of the chapters, in particular the detailed readings of Joe Hillaire's story totem poles and chapters on Lummi oral history and tradition.
It's a peculiar fact that the Lummi and other Coast Salish peoples did not historically carve totem poles. Instead, they carved interior house posts and exterior greeting, speaker, and shame poles. But as several authors insist, Aboriginal culture has never been static and the carving of totem poles follows from prior carving practices. Joe Hillaire rebutted critics of his use of steel tools in his carving, saying "Yes, but a long time ago they used common sense" (liii). And Michael Pavel, a Skokomish tribal member and professor at the University of Oregon who learned carving from his uncle Bruce Miller (not the author of this review) observes that to follow the traditions of the Coast Salish requires "movement, growth and evolution" (127), a reason that art changes. Miller told Pavel that "artists were the first historians" (125), showing the links between art, spiritual life, and the histories of families and communities.
The editor, Gregory Fields, gathered a fascinating group of eleven contributors, most of whom wrote very short, but pithy, chapters. Bill Holm, born in 1925 and the author of the seminal book on Northwest Coast design, writes about what he calls Coast Salish sculpture and the beginnings of the carving of story poles, which he attributes to Snohomish artist William Shelton (1869-1938). Art historian Barbara Brotherton contributes a valuable scholarly discussion of "monumental sculpture" of the Coast Salish and a concise statement of Joe Hillaire's twofold aim to perpetuate tradition and push for social advancement in a period starting with the granting of Native citizenship (1924) and the establishment of tribal governments under the Indian Reorganization Act (1934). Brotherton notes that Coast Salish carving shifted from the creation of work for largely private spiritual use to a "monumental public form of carving meant to appeal to a wide range of viewers, including non-Natives" (54). Carvers Felix Solomon and Scott Jensen contribute discussions of the importance of mentorship of young carvers. Jensen observes that despite successes, in Joe Hillaire's time poles were thought of as primitive. In rebuttal, Jensen describes carving as an "art of skillful action" (83), similar to dressing a deer. Solomon points to the need to conserve older totem poles, including those by Joe Hillaire, except for sacred work, which must return to the earth. He notes that of the hundreds of pieces of Northwest Coast art in the Smithsonian, there are only seventeen Coast Salish items, a fact that reflects the privacy of much of earlier Coast Salish carving, but also, one might add, the relative lack of interest in Coast Salish work which appeared to nineteenth and early-twentieth century collectors to be contaminated by contact with whites. Melonie Ancheta's chapter on pigments and paint technology is a gem, and builds on archaeological, cultural, geological, and other evidence to show how Coast Salish people have created and conceived of the colors used in their art. She reveals that they, in common with other peoples of the north coast, used three colors, black, red, and blue or green. But the Coast Salish, more than the others, resisted using other colors that became available with contact with outsiders.
Gregory Fields, the editor, is also the author of an introduction and two other chapters. He recorded Pauline Hillaire telling stories in 2008 at Southern Illinois University, a sign of a useful collaboration. But his chapter on "Archetypes from Cedar: Myth and Coast Salish Story Poles," the longest in the book, relies entirely on thinking foreign to the Coast Salish historical world. He provides a primer on Jungian theory (archetypes and collective unconscious) and evokes Joseph Campbell's work on the hero's journey. But he doesn't show familiarity with Coast Salish modes of thought. Fields provides a discussion of types of stories, but not those advanced by noted Coast Salish intellectuals themselves, such as Sonny McHalsie, Stó:l? Nation, or the late Vi Hilbert, Upper Skagit, who has written three pages in the beginning of this volume. Sally Snyder, an anthropologist who worked for many years with Coast Salish communities immediately adjacent to the Lummi, wrote powerfully about storytelling, showing the links between people and the land and waterscapes.
Now a personal note: in his interest in universalizing and comparing storytelling traditions, Fields has missed out entirely on the local specificity of mythology. In the 1980s I served as an Early Childhood Educator at the Upper Skagit (a Coast Salish people next door to the Lummi) tribal reservation, going home to home to work with three and four year olds. At the request of the community, I told Skagit myths to the children. To my surprise, I found that they often enacted the myths with blocks and dolls, substituting the names of myth characters (coyote, raven, and so on) with the names of relatives. They intuitively understood that these myths were about them and their families. As Snyder showed, these myths concern irresolvable contradictions in the social fabric of Skagit communities. These myths had direct meaning in the lives of three and four year olds; in effect, they "worked" for these children.
There is a long history of overlooking Aboriginal thought and displacing it with Western ideas, but now is not the time for this. It is possible that these might work together in productive ways, as many have suggested recently, including Nuu-chah-nulth leader and educator Richard Atleo. This volume, unfortunately, doesn't do that and Fields's primary chapter remains out of step with the rest of the contributions, which are written from within Coast Salish perspectives.