Totem Poles:
Storybooks in Cedar

By Margaret Johnston

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    The trees of the field shall clap their hands (Isa. 55:12).

    Modern storybooks are printed on paper made from trees. The Indians of North America’s forest-rich northwest coast carved their stories into the trees themselves.

    When Europeans arrived, they found beautiful wooden sculptures standing before Indian villages. These carved tree trunks recounted the history of Indian families and tribes far back into the mythical past. Raven, Eagle, Frog, Whale, Beaver, Bear, Halibut, Thunderbird, and other legendary figures appeared on the poles, one atop another, reminding the Indians of the traditions of their people.

    These monuments are called totem poles. A totem is an object or animal that serves as the emblem of a clan or tribe.

    Some totem poles held up the beams of houses. Others served as tomb markers or entrances to houses. A few stood on beaches in pairs to welcome guests arriving by sea. Many of the tallest and most important were memorial poles, raised to honor a dead chief.

    To build a totem pole, the Indians first chose a western red cedar tree as close to the ocean or a river as possible. The chief who had ordered the pole made had to approve the choice. Then workers cut it down with tools of sharp-edged stone. They cut the trunk to the length the chief wanted, peeled off the bark, and towed the pole by canoe to a secret spot in the forest. There a skilled craftsman carved and painted it according to the chief’s instructions.

    The Indian craftsmen used tools of stone, shell, wood, bone, and antler. Later, they obtained metal tools from traders, which made the job much easier. Different tribes had different styles of carving, and some renowned craftsmen even traveled from tribe to tribe.

    When the carving was finished, the artist would paint the pole with dyes prepared from nature. Iron and copper ore, graphite, moss, ochre, and other natural pigments were ground into powder in stone mortars and mixed with a binding agent such as chewed-up salmon eggs. Animal hairs or plant fibers in bone or wood handles served as paint brushes. The native dyes were generally softer in color than the bright paints later sold by traders.

    When the totem pole was completed, a celebration called a potlatch was often held. It lasted several days and included feasting, singing, dancing, and gift giving. At the end of the potlatch, the new totem pole would be revealed and set in place. Dancing feet would tramp the dirt down around it. Then the chief hosting the potlatch would tell stories, beginning with the topmost figure and working down, that explained the meaning of the poles.

    As soon as the totem pole was in place, wind, rain, and sun would begin to weather the wood and fade the paint. To repair a memorial pole, a chief would have to hold another expensive potlatch, so nature was usually allowed to take its course. Totem poles ordinarily couldn’t be set very deep in the ground because of bedrock, so they soon began to lean. In time, they fell. Totem poles were only expected to last for an owner’s lifetime, and most poles stood for about fifty or sixty years. But even as they weathered, fell, and decayed, the poles took on a new, more haunting beauty.

    The carving of totem poles died out around the turn of the century, but interest is reviving among Indian craftsmen. Some of the old poles have also been rescued from the elements and can be seen in museums in British Columbia and Alaska.

    If you ever visit one of these museums, think of the many hours of hard work that went into making the totem poles. You will marvel at the skill and patience of the men who carved and painted these beautiful works of art.

    Illustrated by Mike Eagle