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Maryanne Kathleen Basti
To the Northwest Coast Indians, the totem pole provided a means of communicating their stories, myths and legends. The totem pole is an arrangement of symbols or memory devices in sequence created for the purpose of recalling a story or event. These symbols function as a form of “writing”—pictures, not written letters, convey meaning. Further, these stories conveyed symbolically a visual expression of what the Indian culture meant. In our own culture the White House, Plymouth Rock, the Lincoln Memorial are all symbols which “contain” stories each school child knows—and which get evoked, maybe subconsciously, by their mere sight. Just as the story of Betsy Ross and the creation of the flag symbolize the intrinsic idea of freedom to our society, so too do Indian stories represent ideas intrinsic to Indian society.
There are elements within the Northwest Coast Indian culture to which students can relate. The totem pole is one such element. I am eager to use the totem pole to teach my students about another culture through the different approach of object analysis. Totem poles with their overwhelming stature, undulating carvings covered with magnificent symbols full of mystery and intrigue, and subdued colors, strike an impressive pose. Radiating with the excitement of all these elements working together, they stimulate student curiosity and involvement. Totem poles, like Kachina Masks of the Southwest Indians, the Pyramids of Egyptians, or Stonehenge in England, are striking symbols inviting mental inquiry and play, guaranteeing response. As a first step in the lifelong process of making meaning out of objects, students can relate easily to the totem pole because it is a concrete historical system in which each part clearly represents a specific, culturally wellknown event. I want my students to adopt and transfer this Indian system of visual communication to express their own culture.
The study of totem poles as deeply meaningful symbols can lead students to think about the things that are important in their lives, objects which to them represent significant ideas, beliefs, or behaviors. A lesson seeking to relate the study of Indian totem poles to their own cultural symbols might begin with a list: the students would recognize and list what is significant to them. Their lists might include MTV, a video game, Puma sneakers, a football, McDonalds, and a portable radio or “box”. The next step is to translate these verbal lists into visual symbols or keys to express their culture and to recognize what values they represent. My objective is to teach not only that their own culture has validity and its own symbols, but also that their minds are capable of exploring and defining that world given a means of doing so (their own familiar symbols). Employing the totem pole as a model, the students will use their symbols to create “city” totem poles. The objective is to have them experience the pride in creation arising out of seeing their own ideas, thoughts, and efforts come together in the form of a substantial piece of art work.
Designed for middle school art classes grades 6, 7, and 8, the main focus of this unit is to blend successfully, material object study (the totem pole) and analysis (of the culture) with the application of these techniques to our own culture. The ideal first lesson would be a trip to a museum where students could see an actual totem pole. When totem poles are not available, slides and pictures will have to suffice. The important point is to expose students to a culture through the totem pole, which will stimulate their curiosity about that culture.
The first step in our analysis is description. As a class, we will describe and list all the physical characteristics such as height, approximate weight, materials, and construction. These descriptions must be restricted to what the students can observe in the object itself. After completely describing the physical characteristics, we will locate, describe, and list all visible iconography. In dealing with the iconography it is important for students to refrain from drawing comparisons with images from their own culture. To keep it to just what the object itself provides as evidence, discourage students from using the phrase, “that looks like”. Continuing with our description, we will analyze the totem pole form by describing the twodimensional organization (lines and area) and the threedimensional organization of the forms in space. Describing color, light, and texture will conclude our descriptive stage of analysis. As a result of this descriptive analysis, students should develop a heightened sense of awareness or consciousness which will be helpful later in recognizing their own cultural symbols. It also provides the teacher with an opportunity to reinforce art terms such as two and threedimensional, texture, and color related terms (values and hues).
The second stage of our analysis is deduction. In this stage, encourage students to interact with the totem pole. Ask them to imagine themselves with the pole; what do they think, how does it smell, how would it taste, how does it make them feel? Do the bird images suggest flight; do fish images suggest water or swimming? Are important figures placed on top, or are they the base upon which all other figures rely? Lots of deductions are possible. Using common sense, these deductions should be reasonable and generally expressed and accepted by the entire class. As a result of the analysis, many questions will surface and students will want answers.
The last stage of analysis deals with speculation. Review with the students what they learned or extracted in the descriptive and deductive stages and help them to come up with an explanation or hypotheses as to the totem pole’s function or purpose for existing.
Most of my students have not developed the necessary skills to deal comfortably in the abstract. They will want to know if their speculations are on target. They will want to know if they are “right”. For the teacher to substantiate, deny, or clarify the students’ speculations, I have included important background information on the Northwest Coast Indian, and references for further research preparation for this unit. Lesson plans will be incorporated into the narrative which follows.
There is much background information the teacher and student need to become familiar with to fully understand the totem pole. Knowledge of the geographical location, the Indian social structure, art, religion and tribal mythology, is important for it is out of these that the symbols arise. Nevertheless, what is most important about the information is that the students come up with these insights and understandings themselves, rather than be told or lectured about the background. Beginning with a study of the pole will help students ask the questions that will lead to them providing some of the answers themselves.
Warm Oriental ocean currents create a mild climate and produce an excess of humidity. Under these favorable climatic conditions natural vegetation and junglelike forests of cedar, spruce and fir thrive. As a result of the area’s being rich in natural resources and having an abundant food supply (such as game, salmon, fruits and berries) the local inhabitants had no need to practice agriculture. By not having to produce or cultivate their food supply, the Indians had a great deal of leisure time. This leisure time coupled with available wood as an art medium were crucial factors in the development of the totem pole.
Physically and culturally, the tribes were similar, and intermarriage was frequent. However, the tribes were not organized into a nation. Jealousy of power was so strong that no one leader could overcome it enough to impose his leadership on a linguistic group.
All tribes were divided into a fourclass social system composed of royalty, nobility, commonality and slavery. Royalty consisted of a chief and his first nephews who would succeed him. The nobility class consisted of younger nephews and their families, plus people who had distinguished themselves in some way. Commonality or common people were the free men related to the nobility by blood but who were poor. Commoners could rise to a higher social station through the accumulation of wealth. Rivalry with this group was intense. Slaves made up the lowest social group. These were men and women who were either born into slavery or captured in slave raids.
The clan was the strongest group within the tribe. A clan was a group of people bound together by a tradition of first ancestors. Each clan was headed by a chief. Hereditary descent was recognized from the maternal side of the family. Male children at a very early age were sent to live with and be raised by their maternal uncle. The children bore his name, his totem symbol and inherited all the uncle’s property, wives, and debts owed him upon his death.
Living conditions fitted social station. All classes of a clan lived in the same community house, which resembled a roofed village with a communal fire. The chief occupied the rear of the house followed by the nobility class. Less desirable areas belonged to the commoners, and the slaves slept in the entrance way.
The Northwest Coast Indians, unlike most other Indians, placed great importance on ownership, acquisition of property and the flaunting of wealth. They were a totally ostentatious society, living in an atmosphere of competition and lacking in community spirit. Living on a system of credit forced them to become preoccupied with debt and the payment thereof. Even after death, debts and shame lived on. Wealth was measured by the number of totem poles, blankets, capes, furs, carved boats and copper disks one owned.
Indian religious practices were not immediately apparent. They worshipped no single deity, offered no sacrifices, lacked an organized priesthood, had no houses of worship or idols, and practiced no congregational worship. They believed all things around them possessed spirits which could help or hurt them. Numerous taboos had to be observed to appease these spirits and secure their goodwill. These taboos were always concerned with waste and hoarding. An example of a taboo diligently observed was, “Salmon should not be kept for more than one year. To do so would be to deprive the salmon of natural life and his spirit could not be released.”4 If this taboo was broken, the Indians feared that the Salmon would leave the area.
Indians believed in an afterlife and they practiced cremation.
The Indian artist practiced a conventional art style as opposed to a representational style. Representational art shows the object as the artist sees it. There is poetic license involved. Conventional art follows certain formal rules or conventions which are often centuries old. Stated beautifully by Reid in his book entitled Out of the Silence, “It was an austere, sophisticated art. It’s prevailing mood was classical control yet it characterized even the simplest objects of daily life. These seagoing hunters took the entire environment as art form.”7
Indian love for ostentation and display is evidenced in their highly decorative style. More meant better, and they disliked vacant space, straight lines and sharp angles. A main requirement was that their art serve a useful end. Objects such as spoons, drums, dishes and blankets were heavily decorated. But artists were restrained by the size and shape of their objects. This restriction led to an almost complete disregard for perspective. “To create within these limitations the artist employed dissection, rearrangement of parts and distortion. Certain parts were greatly enlarged or eliminated, others suppressed, bent or folded until they fit into their allotted space”.8 Balanced designs were desirable and to achieve balance the artist employed dissection. For example, to fit Raven on a drum, “the Raven might be split down the back and laid open resulting in a two headed Raven which did not exist in Indian mythology.”9 If an entire symbol could not be made to fit as a whole, the symbol was chopped and the pieces placed randomly in the area. This chopping process could result in a design having eyes placed next to legs.
The Indian artist was always conscious of the skeletal form. Each joint such as a knee or elbow was represented by an eye form. If the joint was large the eye form became a face. Empty spaces were always filled with either eyes, flicker feather designs or toads. It is difficult to separate space fillers from main characters unless one is familiar with the tale the pole represents. Animals and supernatural beings were carved with ears prominently placed on the tops of their heads while humans had their ears carved on the sides of the heads.
The Indians believed birds, insects, fish and animals could become human at will. In their art, there is always a clue to expose the artist’s intent. If an artist were portraying a whale in human form:, he might place a blow hole in the forehead; a raven in human form would be a face with a beak; an octopus might be a face with tentacles for eyebrows.
A system to identify important figures was developed by the Indians. In this system the salient feature of the totem animal was stressed. The following is a list of examples intended for classroom discussion.
Wolf—long sharp muzzle and elevated snout
Bear—usually realistically featured large nostrils, paws and fangs
Mountain Goat—sharp horns, cleft hoof as a foot with two toes
Killerwhale—two prominent dorsal fins, large head, mouth turned up at corners, two spines above eyes
Dogfish Shark—gill slits as crescents, crescentshaped mouth, depressed at corners and filled with sawlike teeth
Halibut—continuous fin, both eyes on one side
Octopus—bird like head, hooked bill, suction plates and tentacles
Insects—carved much like birds, difficult to recognize
Supernatural symbols—carved as adaptations of local species i.e. sea grissly carved as a bear with fins
Toads—carved realistically and used as space fillers, inclusion on pole believed to prevent pole from rotting
Sea Animals—round eyes while all other animal eyes are carved as two outer curves enclosing a circle
Men and Women—represented realistically, women are distinguished by a labret in their lower lip.”l0
These totems appear in six different settings, which are common to all five tribes. They are all carved from red cedar in the conventional art style. Totem poles were public documents raised to recall legends or validate events and the difference between the six types lie in the purpose for which they were erected.
The six types are as follows:
There are no hidden meanings in a totem pole but lots of cultural ones: hence those outside the culture may not be able to make connections. Totem poles are more social than religious and share nothing in common with idols, are never worshipped and never figure in religious ceremonies. The symbols only serve as memory devices to recall a story. It is important to point out once again that these stories reflect the unifying factors of the culture and hence to read a totem pole it is necessary to understand Indian mythology. This is not an easy task. Some myths were collected and published, others are lost for all time. In many cases young Indians are not taught the myths and older tribesmen are reluctant to discuss them. “Indians respect and honor the property right of a story. One could not sing a song which is the property of another nor dance his dance, nor tell his story.”l5
“1. House pillars and false house pillars supported the rafters in the large communal houses. 2. Mortuary poles were simply painted poles on top of which were placed a box containing the ashes of the deceased. Later the ashes were removed and replaced with a totem. 3. Memorial poles were raised to honor both the living and the dead. 4. Heraldic portal or family poles were placed in the middle front of a house with a hole near the base which served as a doorway. The pole was carved with the mythological history of the clan within. Its purpose was to advertise and exalt the lineage. 5. The Potlatch pole was designed to record and validate important events. Potlatch in Indian means “story master”. These are the tallest (6080 feet) and the most elaborately decorated poles. They are distinguished by having one to three high hatted watchmen at the top. Beneath the watchmen is the chief’s totem, then his myth and then his wife’s totem. 6. The Ridicule or Shame pole was erected to force some person of high standing to meet or recognize an obligation. Many white men are carved on these poles. Another form of shaming a person was to carve his totem upside down.”l4
The following list is what Indian scholars consider necessary to fully analyze the totem pole. For middle school students the list is overwhelming, but it does provide guidelines for the teacher. To read a totem pole certain basic facts should be predetermined:
Totem poles are read from top to bottom. The principal character, clan, orphratry symbol was placed on top. Following this are the characters and objects which recall the legend and at the base of the pole is carved the wife’s clan symbol.
- “1. Determine what linguistic group made the pole.
- 2. Ascertain the type of pole, mortuary, heraldic.
- 3. Locate and study tribal myths.
- 4. Identify each figure.
- 5. Determine which characters are part of the story and which are space fillers.
- 6. Recall the myth starting from the top.”l6
Carvers had no say in their work. They were artists hired to do exactly as directed by the totem pole’s owner. After the owner selected his tree the first step was to hollow it out. This work made the tree more mobile, and by removing the heartwood, more resistant to checking. The tree was marked off into equal sections. Sometimes different carvers were used for different sections. Separate payment was made for each carved section. After carvings were completed, a uniform texture was applied to the entire surface by scooping out dimesized uniform chips.
Totem poles were painted with a type of fish egg tempera and colors were limited to subdued shades of red, black, green, and blue. European paints were introduced in 1830 and poles produced after this time displayed a variety of brighter colors.
In 1820, the iron adze was introduced by the Northwest traders. As a result of this addition, the period from 18301880 is referred to as the Golden Age of Totem Poles. This period witnessed the finest and the tallest poles (between 6080 feet) ever constructed.
Raising the finished pole was a great social event called a Potlatch. The purpose of this party was to build up the reputation and social standing of the host. The erected pole would remain to give witness to the celebration that took place. Winter was the time for Potlatch as summer was a time to gather food. Preparations for this feast took several years and the actual celebration could last for months or even years. It was an expensive event to which only the very rich could subscribe. Hosts were required to provide each guest with a daily gift in addition to their food. There were two reasons why an Indian would spend this great sum of money. First, he would pay off his debts with great ceremony and personal honor; second he would indebt his guests by giving gifts to them. These gifts were considered loans. After several years these loans must be paid back with interest to the host or his heirs. Hence Potlatches served as a type of Indian life insurance. Our term “Indian giver” is derived from this celebration. Although Indian giver is a derogatory term, the practice from which it was derived was not.
Once a pole was erected, it was never repaired or repainted. It was left to fall prey to the elements. “Indians could not engage in repairs except with great formality and expense and no new honors realized.”l7 Socially and economically it was cheaper to erect a new pole. Totem poles were personal monuments that the Indians seemed content to have last only one man’s lifetime.
Bibles and school books, the white man’s written language, the government’s outlawing of the Potlatch, the end of slavery, and the coming of canneries all spelled the end for the totem pole. Misinformed missionaries came into the area believing totem poles to be pagan idols and promptly set cut on a campaign to destroy them. Intent on their mission, they were very successful and destroyed a great number.
Brief and unsuccessful attempts were made by local inhabitants at reviving the totem pole. Indian life styles were so changed that the importance of the totem pole was gone forever.
Illustration by Author
Drawn from a picture of the Sun and Raven totem pole from the book The Wolf and the Raven, Garfield, p. 14. (See teachers bibliography)
Illustration by Author
A brother and sister were the only people living in a certain place. The brother wanted no one else except his sister and himself, but she was very lonely. One day she walked along the shore and climbed up on a rocky point immediately above a small clear pool. As she sat there crying and thinking how lonely she was, she noticed a small white pebble in the pool below. Still crying, she walked down and got the pebble, which was shaped like an egg. She swallowed it, thinking that it would kill her. After a while she realized that she was to have a child, but did not want her brother to learn of it for fear he would try to kill the baby.
After the child, who was Raven, was born he grew so rapidly that she had difficulty hiding him. She walked along the beach calling for help from the animals of the forest and the birds of the sky. Everything imaginable responded and of each she asked, “What can you do?” She wanted her child to be trained to be strong and brave so her brother could not harm him. Finally Crane answered her pleas, saying, “I’ll raise your child.” She again asked him,, “What can you do?” Crane answered, “I stand in the water winter and summer alike. I will raise your boy that way.” She was glad and gave the boy to Crane, who took him down to the beach and out into the cold water every day. Thus the boy grew rapidly into a strong and hardy youth, for that was the way the people in olden times trained their brave men.
When Raven grew up Crane sent him back to his mother. His uncle was very angry and tried to kill him. First he sent him, for wood and caused a tree to fall on him. Since Raven was born from a pebble the tree broke over his head and did not harm him. Then his uncle tried other ways to kill Raven, but each time he was outwitted.
Finally the uncle told Raven that he was going to call the tides to come in, meaning that he was going to cause a flood. The water began rising and Raven went out and commanded the tides to stop. Then the uncle commanded them to rise and Raven could not stop them. Realizing that he was beaten by his uncle’s stronger powers, Raven went out and shot a bird similar to a sandpiper. He put the bird skin on and flew up into the sky. There he was entertained by Sun. (According to one version he married Sun’s daughter and stayed there a long time before venturing to earth again.) He put on the bird skin and flew down, but the waters still covered the earth. He flew until he was tired. Finally he saw a thick cloud and stuck his beak into it. How long he hung there no one knows, but the waters finally receded. Raven prayed for a grassy spot on which to light and then let go of the cloud. He landed safely, removed the bird skin, and was ready for further adventures.
The second episode in the Raven myth cycle is symbolized by the face of Daughter of the Fog, or Fog Woman, the raven head near the bottom of the pole, and the salmon, three on either side of the raven.
Raven was fishing with his two slaves, and was returning to camp when a heavy fog settled over the bay. Suddenly they saw a woman sitting in their canoe. She called for a spruceroot basket, put it on her left side and began collecting the fog into it. Soon it was bright and sunny and they reached camp.
Shortly afterward Raven went hunting with one of the slaves. Fog Woman dipped her fingers in the stream and immediately salmon appeared. She and the slave with her ate the fish, and she warned him not to tell Raven they had had food. Raven discovered the fact and demanded to know what the slave had eaten. Finally he was told, and he persuaded his wife to produce more salmon, which they dried and stored. They had almost finished when Raven, passing through the smokehouse, caught his hair on a dried fish hanging on the rack. Angrily he pulled it down and, with an oath, threw it into the corner of the smokehouse. Fog Woman immediately left the house and walked toward the beach, and the salmon came to life and followed her. Raven tried to stop her, but she was like fog, and he could not hold her. She walked out to sea.
Raven turned his attention to the salmon but could not save any of them. He and his two slaves were left as povertystricken as they were before Fog Woman appeared.
The third episode from the adventures of Raven is symbolized by the frog at the base of the pole with Raven diving after him.
After the Deluge Raven was walking along the shore. He wanted to go to the bottom of the ocean and Frog offered to take him. They saw many strange things, none of which are shown in the carving.”l8
1. Csikszentmihalyi, The Meaning of Things, p. 1. 2. Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method”, Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 17, no. 1., Spring, 1982. p. 7. 3. Holder, Talking Totem Poles, p. 10. 4. Keithahn, Monuments in Cedar, p. 79. 5. Chesley, Americans Before Columbus, p. 51. 6. Gridley, American Indian Tribes, pp. 1634. 7. Reid, Out of the Silence, p. 104. 8. Keithahn, Monuments in Cedar, p. 71. 9. Keithahn, Monuments in Cedar, p. 71. 10. Keithahn, Monuments in Cedar, pp. 723. 11. Reid, Out of the Silence, p. 86. 12. Reid, Out of the Silence, p. 18. 13. Garfield, The Wolf and the Raven, p. 2. 14. Keithahn, Monuments in Cedar, pp. 512. 15. Chesley, Americans Before Columbus, p. 149. 16. Keithahn, Monuments in Cedar, p. 64. 17. Chesley, Americans Before Columbus, p. 150. 18. Garfield, The Wolf and the Raven, pp: 137 16, 17.
Museum of the American Indian
Broadway at 155th Street
New York, New York 10001
Complete brochures will be sent upon request.
American Museum of Natural History
New York, New York 10024
The following list of books contain a variety of pictures and illustrations suitable for analysis. Information regarding these books is located in the teacher’s bibliography.
The Wolf and the Raven, Garfield.
Totem Poles, Totem Poles According to Crests and Topics, Barbeau.
Monuments in Cedar, Keithahn.
Barbeau, Marius. Totem Poles of the Gitksan, Upper Skeena River, British Columbia. Ottawa: F.A. Acland, 1929. National Museum of Canada, Anthropological Series, No. 12. Bulletin No. 61. Part of an anthropological series with very complete factual information.
Barbeau, Marius. Totem Poles, Totem Poles according to crest and topics. Canada: Dept. of Resources and Development branch of the National Museum of Canada. Bulletin No. 119, Vol. I., Anthropological series #30.
Barbeau, Marius. Totem Poles, Totem poles according to location. Canada: Dept. of Resources and Development Branch of the National Museum of Canada. Bulletin No. 119, Vol. II, Anthropological series #30.
Csikazentmihalyi, Mihaly and Eugene RochbergHulton. The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Garfield, Viola E. and Foreest, Linn A. The Wolf and the Raven. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961. Interesting reading. Good illustrations, with translations of legends and myths and explanations of various symbols.
Keithahn, Edward L. Monuments in Cedar. Seattle, Washington: Superior Publishing Co., 1963. Informative and pleasant reading. Provides solid basic information without too much detail. Excellent illustrations.
Prown, Jules D., “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterhur Portfolio, vol. 17, no. 1, Spring 1982, pp. 119. Essential reading. Prown provides a clear and thorough explanation of the methodology used in material culture analysis; a procedure essential to the success of this unit.
Quimby, Ian M. G. ed., Material Culture and the Study of American Life (New York: W.W. Norbon & Co., 1978).
Reid, William and DeMenil Adelaide. Out of the Silence. Published for the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth: Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, New York, 1971. Beautiful photographs with effective short narratives on the area, the people, the art and totem poles of the Northwest Coast.
Bleeker, Sonia. The Sea Hunters, Indians of the Northwest Coast, Morrow Junior Books, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1951. 156 p. Written in storybook style, it tells the story of the Northwest Coast Indians daily lives to present times. Easy reading, provides insight into basic Indian existence.
Brindze, Ruth. The Totem Pole, Vanguard Press, New York, 1951. 63 p. Very easy reading, excellent for lower grades. Simple, but contains enough information to be helpful.
Gridley, Marion E. American Indian Tribes, Dodd, Mead, New York, 1974, 183 p. Historically informative, but somewhat difficult reading, geared more for the serious student.
Hofsinde, Robert. Indian Picture Writing, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1959 96 p. Exciting little book. Great for children who enjoy doing puzzles or figuring out secret messages.
Holder, Glenn. Talking Totem Poles, Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, 1973. 76 p. Excellent reading. Easy to read, and filled with exciting information. Provides a good solid background for the study of the totem pole.
Hunt, W. Ben. The Complete Book of Indian Crafts and Lore, Golden Press, New York, 1976. 103 p. Very instructive. Filled with Indian related projects students can make. Good illustrations and diagrams, easy to follow.
Tunis, Edwin. Indians. The World Publishing Co., Cleveland and New York, 1959. 153 p. General information about American Indians. Limited information provided regarding totem poles.
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