SEATTLE – For almost a century, totem poles stood as silent sentinels in many abandoned villages in the Pacific Northwest.
They were a testimony to the art, culture and way of life that were prevalent in the region before smallpox decimated local tribal populations and missionaries ordered totem pole carving stopped because they thought it pagan.
The late Haida artist Bill Reid called totem poles “treasures that only great traditions, talents, and sometimes genius, can create.”
Today, totem poles have emerged from the silence with resurgence in totem pole carving. Totem poles and other art stolen from villages 100 years ago are being returned amid healing ceremonies and there is a new recognition of the enduring power of totem poles and what they mean.
The totem pole’s resurrection is due partly to the work of Reid and photographer Adelaide de Menil, who in the 1960s explored the Pacific Northwest coast from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska. They found a silent landscape of ancient villages and decaying poles and started recording the art of cultures they feared were dying.
Their record was published as a book, “Out of the Silence,” in 1971.
An exhibit based on the book, “Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles,” will be featured at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, at the University of Washington in Seattle through Sept. 1.
The exhibit is rich in mural-size photographs, video, personal stories, history and artifacts. It details the past, present and future of totem poles in the Coast Salish, Haida, Kitkatla, Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, Nuu-chah-nulth, Tlingit and Tsimshian nations.
Significance of totem poles
“Out of the Silence” tells the story of a culturally significant art form that survived despite centuries of theft, population decline and attempts to eradicate it.
Totem poles were carved to tell the stories of families, villages and people. Some poles were created to honor family members; some held the remains of chiefs. Other were carved and erected as signs of welcome.
On Haida Gwaii (Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands), among the Haida people, thick cedar poles were carved to depict animals and figures that represented families and family history.
Among the Kwakwaka’wakw people of coastal British Columbia, the thunderbird with outstretched wings was a prominent fixture on totem poles. The style was widely imitated and by the late 1800s had become the icon of Native peoples recognized around the world.
Artists of Puget Sound, among the Coast Salish people carved images representing ancestors or personal spirit helpers. These figures stood outdoors as grave monuments or inside as interior house posts. Over the next century, very few survived.
From icons to objects of desire
In 1774, voyagers from the outside world first met Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest and were introduced to their art. At the time, Northwest arts and cultures were unknown to Europeans and European-Americans, according to Bill Holm, curator emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art.
Totem poles and other carvings soon became objects of desire.
In 1899, railroad magnate E.H. Harriman led a totem pole hunt in Alaska’s Cape Fox, near Ketchikan. Harriman left with grizzly bear house posts that were not purchased.
In August that year, a group of Seattle businessmen went on a totem pole hunt in an abandoned Tlingit village in Tongass, near Ketchikan. A totem pole stolen from the village was erected with great fanfare in what is now Pioneer Square in Seattle.
One display in the current exhibit is a carved sea lion that was stolen from the roof ridge of a village home during the August 1899 artifact hunt. The theft of the sea lion – but, curiously, not the pole – caused some public outrage in Seattle. As a result, the businessmen raised $500 but sent it to the wrong village – the Tsimshian village in Metlakatla. The Tongass people were never compensated.
Rebirth of an ancient art
In the early 1900s, a few Salish carvers began carving multiple figure poles with Salish stories, an expansion from their traditional single-figure carvings. It created a new tradition in Salish art.
In 1933, Chief William Shelton of the Snohomish tribe was commissioned to carve a pole for the state capitol grounds in Olympia. The pole symbolizes the peace that existed between Native Americans and settlers since the 1854 treaties between the Washington Territory and Northwest tribal government. After the end of World War II, Tsimshian artist Casper Mather carved a pole depicting and honoring Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
The 1960s, however, marked the beginning of a surge in totem pole carving.
In 1969, Haida artist Robert Davidson carved a new pole and raised it in Old Masett, one of two occupied villages in Haida Gwaii. Since 1969, seven poles have been raised in Masett.
Decaying totem poles have been recently researched and replicated by Steve Brown of the Northwest Native Arts School and Tlingit carvers Will Burkhardt Jr., Nathan Jackson, Wayne Price and Israel Shotridge.
In 1998, the David family (Nuu-chah-nulth) raised a traditional pole to honor their late parents, Hyacinth and Winifred, on Blake Island in Puget Sound.
A year later, artist and dancer Joe David – son of Hyacinth and Winifred – carved a pole to honor the successful campaign to prevent clear-cutting of his native Meares Island, B.C.
That same year, Jim Hart raised a pole in Masett, Haida Gwaii, when he took the place of his uncle, Morris White and became Chief 7IDansuu.
In 2001, six new poles were erected near Skidegate at Qay ‘llnagaay, site of a planned heritage center in Haida Gwaii. Each pole represents a village devastated by smallpox in 1860s.
In August 2002, carvers from the Lummi Nation made a healing totem pole to help the U.S. share the burden of grief after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The carvers took the pole across the country with ceremonial stops along the way to seek healing prayers, blessings and songs of elders from at least 25 tribes. The pole was then given to the families of victims.
Healing and forgiveness
Several efforts have been or will be undertaken to heal wounds from the past.
In July 2001, Smith College and Kitty Freedman – a great-great-granddaughter of E.H. Harriman – returned the grizzly bear house posts to the Tlingit people in Ketchikan. The event was followed by an emotional healing ceremony.
At the end of the “Out of the Silence” exhibit, the Burke Museum will return the carved sea lion to the Tlingit people of Tongass – known as Taantakwaan, or sea lion people. The Museum had asked for permission to include it in the exhibit.
Exhibit is worth seeing
At the “Out of the Silence” exhibit, visitors go beneath the art to the culture and tradition at the root of totems. Totem poles stand tall today, amid the shadows of the past – a life that never died, a blessing from One-Who-Was-Not-Created. The Burke Museum invites families to experience this art form rooted in tradition and history.
For more information call (206) 543-5590 or visit www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/ .