Totem poles through an intercultural lens

Posted: Thursday, August 26, 2010

It's tough to imagine a more visually striking art form than the totem pole. With the stature and substance of a tree, the character variety and depth of a complex novel, the impact of a billboard, and the artistry of fine sculpture, these monumental works of art have amazed non-Native cultures for 250 years, beginning with the very first white men who saw them in the late 1700s. That strong reaction to the form - from a culture that lacked the tools to understand it - and the ways that fascination played out over time is one of the threads explored in a new book, "The Totem Pole: an Intercultural History," by Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass.

Photo By Libby Sterling
Photo By Libby Sterling

The book, which took the authors 10 years to write, traces the history of totem poles within both Native and non-Native contexts, specifically concentrating on how the interaction of these widely divergent cultures affected the form.

Jonaitis will give a reading at Hearthside Books downtown next Friday, Sept. 3.

Jonaitis, director emerita of the University of Alaska Museum of the North and professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Glass, assistant professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, are both academics, but the book was written for a general audience - the "educated layperson," Jonaitis said. It is part history, part commentary and part celebration, and includes sidebars from a variety of Native voices, including Robert Davidson, Nathan Jackson and Bill Holm.

Jonaitis said she first became interested in Northwest Coast art as a kid growing up in New York City. Her visits to museums, especially the American Museum of Natural History (where she later held the position of vice president for public programs), really stuck with her, and when she got to grad school in the 1970s and was presented with the opportunity to choose her specialty, the choice was easy.

"When I realized I could specialize in Northwest Coast art, I was thrilled," she recalled.

She'd never been north of California at that point, and when she finally was able to visit the area, she was not disappointed.

"(I thought), 'This is the most beautiful place in the world,'" she said.

Jonaitis, author of seven books, is now recognized as one of the foremost scholars in the field of Northwest Coast art.

Though totem poles now enjoy a huge range, the authors state that in the beginning the form was probably limited to a small area of British Columbia, most likely Haida Gwaii, or the Queen Charlotte Islands. The poles served a practical purpose: to record history, lineage, and social standing, and to proclaim clan affiliation and privilege. They were "indexes of status and history," that answered the questions: Who are you? And where are you from? The answers to those questions, expressed in the totems, were complicated, largely indecipherable to an outside audience.

Though they couldn't understand them, white settlers in Alaska appreciated the poles for their beauty and uniqueness. They were quickly appropriated as emblems of the Pacific Northwest throughout the late 1800s and into the 1900s, the same period during which Native culture - and carving - was being suppressed by missionaries.

Wrested from their specific and personal cultural context, the poles were replanted in foreign soil as iconic figures. Sometimes this happened literally, as in the case of the Pioneer Square Pole in Seattle, which was taken from Tongass Island in 1899, and sometimes figuratively, as in totem poles' inclusion in advertising campaigns and movies.

Native art and culture remained strong throughout this period, however, and by the 1930s, carvers were given a boost: The Forest Service hired Native carvers to recreate and restore traditional poles through the Civilian Conservation Corps. Two of Juneau's poles were carved during this time: the Governor's Totem Pole, in front of the Governor's Mansion on Calhoun Street, and the Yax-te pole out at Auke Rec. Still, a real renaissance in the field didn't get going until the 1960s and '70s - and it has not stopped since, according to the authors. Jonaitis said that in spite of the troubled history of the area, she sees the resurgence of Native carving as a great reason to be positive.

"The past is the past and people did things in the past that are horrible, but what's wonderful is there's so much carving going on right now," she said. "There's a huge number of people who are doing fabulous things."

One locally represented Native artist who is embracing the changing nature of the art form is Stephen Jackson, Tlingit Master Carver Nathan Jackson's son. His pole, Raven and Tl'anax'eet'ák'w, was carved in the Mount Roberts Tramway lobby over the course of a couple years when the younger Jackson was in his 20s, said Goldbelt tram manager George Reifenstein, and is intended to be a kind of work in progress. When he's in town, Jackson comes by the site and adds a new bit of carving to his work, Reifenstien said. This is done to represent one of the themes of his piece: the constant evolution of the kwáan.

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