Thursday, September 20, 2007

Totems in Transition

Today Northwest Coast tribal people are again identified with totem poles. Tragically, during the period of early contact, well-meaning but seriously misinformed Christian missionaries, perceiving totem poles to be a form of devil worship, convinced many native people to burn them. The tribal societies recently decimated by European diseases were ripe picking for missionaries who told them that their troubles were a result of their own sins. What the missionaries did not understand was that the Totem Poles and tattooing, also perceived as barbarism to be discouraged, were a means by which the tribal people recorded complex family and clan relationships. This was critical not only to their identity but it informed them of whom they could or could not marry. In an incredible feat of cultural survival through adaptation the native people began to record tribal crests with newly available materials, shell buttons and wool blankets. Tattoo designs were transferred to the engraved silver jewelry we are familiar with today. The idea came from the engraved silver tea services brought here by the English. Haida artist Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) mastered this form of silverwork. Notably, Edenshaw was the grandfather of well known Canadian artist Bill Reid.

Hillary Stewart’s book, Looking at Totem Poles is a beautifully illustrated overview of Totem Poles and their meaning.

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