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The totem pole as art: How they came to be

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Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2012 12:25 am | Updated: 12:09 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - Few artworks of Native North American cultures inspire as much fascination as the totem poles carved by coastal peoples indigenous to the lands stretching from Seattle to the Alaska panhandle. As exotic and exquisitely detailed as anything found on South Pacific islands, these intricately designed sentinels have attracted tourists, museum collectors and researchers ever since they were first noticed by passengers on passing vessels.

The role of totem poles in the interaction of Native and white cultures is the underlying theme of “Discovering Totem Poles: A Traveler’s Guide” by Aldona Jonaitis, former director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Starting in Seattle and working her way northward to Juneau, Jonaitis visits 25 sites with well known poles. In brief entries she explains the histories of these totems and how they reflect the tangled and often conflict-ridden relationship between indigenous peoples and the dominant culture that took over their lands.

In her introduction, Jonaitis offers a quick glimpse at the history of totem pole building, noting that the practice originated with the Tsimshian and Haida people prior to contact with Europeans, but didn’t start extending outward until Tlingit carvers took up the form early in the 19th century. From there it spread south along the coast of British Columbia.

Contrary to the beliefs of missionaries, totem poles were never objects of worship. This misunderstanding led to the destruction of many artifacts by early arriving Christians on the coast who sought to convert the Natives. One of the few missionaries of the late nineteenth century who didn’t seek to abolish totem building was John Brady. The man who would one day serve as territorial governor was unusually sympathetic to Native cultures for the time and gathered the original poles at what would eventually become the Sitka National Historical Park, today a major tourist attraction with perhaps the finest collection on display anywhere.

The first totem pole Jonaitis visits in her book is the famous one situated in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The one found today is actually a replica of the original, which was taken without permission from the village of Tongass by a group of businessmen touring the Inside Passage in 1899. Treated as a trophy of their travels, the men hauled it back to Seattle and had it erected as a symbol of their city. In keeping with the times no thought was given to the pole’s original owners, who were enraged by its theft.

Many of the stories Jonaitis recounts involve this sort of insensitivity on the part of whites. Natives were frequently viewed as little more than savages, and their artworks were seen as free for the plunder. As the book progresses, readers are offered several examples of totem poles being appropriated or the construction of them outlawed. But these accounts are followed by more recent tales of the poles being returned to their original owners, as well as the resurgence of totem carving in tandem with the rise of Native American sovereignty movements and land claims.

The totem poles on display in Prince Rupert mark the negotiations between local Natives and the Canadian government over autonomy and the righting of past wrongs. In Skidegate they represent a cultural revival amongst a people who were early converts to Christianity and modernity, and who gave up the practice of totem building for nearly a century. And in Ketchikan, many historic totem poles were reconstructed during the Depression as part of the Indian Civilian Conservation Corps work projects. These efforts in turn fueled the Native rights movement that led to the abolishment of segregation in the territory in 1945, fully two decades before the nation followed suit.

One of the things Jonaitis seeks to convey to readers is how the building of totem poles has flourished in recent decades as Natives have reclaimed their heritage. She presents them as representative of a dynamic and evolving art form, not simply a cultural relic. Newer poles, some with quite modernistic stylings, are presented alongside the replicas of older ones (being carved from wood, totem poles naturally decay, so even the best preserved today are rarely more than two centuries old).

She also shows how they have reflected the consequences of contact with Europeans. The pole in Ketchikan with Abraham Lincoln atop it isn’t as reverent as viewers might think. The Wellbreity Pole in Sitka addresses the impact of substance abuse — a problem that arrived with white settlers. And the Wooshkeetan Pole outside Juneau’s Centennial Hall recalls an attack by U.S. Navy forces on the village of Angoon in 1882, an assault that the federal government has yet to formally apologize for.

Totem poles have served as tourist attractions for over a century, and Jonaitis visits a few sites where this appeal is deliberately emphasized. Poles in the arrival areas of Vancouver International Airport put people on notice that they have entered what was historically Indian country. The iconic Thunderbird Pole is widely associated with Alaska, but a replica is found in B.C., where the original came from. And in Alert Bay on Vancouver Island, carvers have erected both the world’s widest and the world’s tallest poles in a conscious effort at drawing visitors. Elsewhere, we meet master carvers who are pushing totem pole building into the 21st century with new and innovative designs.

“Perhaps the single most important fact that emerges from a study of totem poles,” Jonaitis writes in closing, “is that there are more totem poles standing today than there were a hundred years ago.” This short but richly detailed introduction explains why this is and gives readers an added appreciation of this living and constantly evolving art form.

Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

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