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Northwest Pacific Coast Totem Poles and other art forms.
Transcript of Northwest Pacific Coast Totem Poles and other art forms.
Northwest Pacific Coast Indians
Totems originally were a series of emblems representing a Northwest Native family-clan, their kinship system, dignity, accomplishments, prestige, adventures, stories, and rights.
Once upon a time, not long ago, a number of "special magical" individuals secretly lived among ordinary animal and human populations. These "special" animals or people could transform into other creatures. For example, a "special" Bear could transform into a human wearing a bearskin coat and then, poof. He or she could transform back into a bear again.
These animals could also transform into other forms including humans.
The special creatures with these "magical" powers lived in three kingdoms: the Sky Realm, the Earth Realm and the Underwater World. Many could travel between two or even three of the these planes. Other were trapped in a single plane.
When people weren't watching, these special Bears, Whales, Eagles, Hawks, Beavers, Frogs and so on preferred to live in human form. In this way, they lived exactly as Native people did at contact. They fell in love, got married, took care of their children, fished for salmon, made longboats and held dance ceremonies. They even made their own totem poles, had wars among themselves and behaved... just like humans do!
The figures on totem poles are based on these “special magical” individuals.
The poles are carved from red cedar with stylized human and animal forms. The figures on the pole represent the ancestry of a particular individual or family, and usually each image has a story connected to it.
There are many misconceptions about totem poles. The following are some of the many false beliefs:
-Totems were once worshipped . (Never, ever. They are emblems, not icons.)
-Totems are/were used as talismans. (Never, ever.)
-Northwest Pacific Coast shamans used totem poles to ward off evil spirits. (Never.)
-Decaying totem poles are thousands of years old. (In reality, most totem poles, though made of decay resistant cedar, fall over in about 100 years; the
oldest ones in Ninstints, BC date from about the 1840s and 1850s.)
-Painted poles are fakes or unpainted poles are fakes (Some poles are painted, some are not. The choice is the carvers to make.)
-Totem poles are solemn and always very serious. (Actually, there are several jokes woven into totem poles such as figures "accidentally" carved upside down, or a little figures winking, grinning and peeking out of Bear's ear or out of Whale's blowhole. Tricks have occasionally been played on the pole's sponsor. If the person paying for the pole annoys the carvers too much, he might be portrayed on the pole, - a little too embarrassingly naked. A little touch of carved-in amusement, here and there, is a valid part of the tradition.)
Aristocratic lord of the Sky Realm,
Eagles are part of Thunderbird's
Bears live in their own villages in the forests and are able to make fires with wet sticks. They can easily transform into human form.
Rulers of their own underwater city, Whales, also known as Blackfish, live with other royal underwater beings like Copper Woman and Komogwa, the underwater sea king. Whales hate Thunderbirds because Thunderbirds can scoop Whales right out of the water and eat them.
Beavers With their fine
front teeth, they
not only build dens,
they make fine arrows.
Grand lord of the Sky Realm,
Thunderbird can make himself
invisible and appear as a great wind.
How old are totem poles?
Since the late 1700s, as Native people gradually acquired metal tools, the aboriginals from southeastern Alaska and the Northwest Pacific coast carved larger and larger totem poles. Before contact, totem carvings were about the size of a walking cane.
This makes the totem pole tradition seem fairly recent, doesn't it? The key thing to note is that the art forms, faces, figures and stories depicted on totem poles date back (perhaps) thousands of years and were depicted on everything from bone combs to bent boxes and masks. After contact with Europeans, tools improved, and totem poles increased in size.
In times past, a totem was raised for several reasons:
-to show the (great) number of rights a person had acquired over their lifetime-to record an encounter with a supernatural being-to symbolize the generosity of a person who sponsored a Potlatch ceremony.