The Totem Pole: Material Transformation of a Cultural Icon

By Aaron Glass and Aldona Jonaitis
(Co-authors of the new book “The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History” (University of Washington Press, 2010), on which the following essay is based).
– Click here for a slideshow narrated by Aldona Jonaitis.
– For readers in the New York City area, come hear Aaron Glass give an illustrated talk at Observatory on October 24, 2010.
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[image by Aaron Glass]
Wherever you go, it sometimes seems, you are likely to encounter a totem pole in some form or another. A tourist visiting a totem pole park—such as Saxman Native Village in Ketchikan, Alaska, or Thunderbird Park next to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia—may observe how well cared for and preserved the monuments are. Once he or she has learned the identities of all the figures on a specific pole from available labels or tour guides, the typical tourist will probably be satisfied that he or she now understands the pole, and will go on to photograph the next one, or to buy a miniaturized version. In contrast, for the indigenous chief who erects a pole, it is a material record of the privilege that he or his lineage has to depict certain images (typically heraldic crests), and of the lavish potlatch – the famous feast at which valuables are distributed to seal social obligations of validation and reciprocity – which celebrated the pole’s raising and enhanced the host’s standing in his community. Following the potlatch, the pole might be used as a mnemonic device to recall the family’s claims or the event itself, but commonly the pole would also be left to the elements, which decides its ultimate fate. Although aesthetic sophistication may confer additional prestige on a pole’s carver or owner, totem poles were and are not typically objects of artistic contemplation, much less worship, for the communities from which they come. However, in contemporary popular imagination, such complex, socially oriented indigenous meanings have largely vanished. Instead, totem poles have become transformed into souvenir kitsch and commercial logos; signifiers of settler colonial cities, states and nations; monumental artworks in museums and outdoor parks; symbols of stereotyped Native Americans otherwise entirely based on Plains or Woodlands prototypes (feathered headdresses, teepees, peace pipes, tomahawks, and birchbark canoes).
Although originally placed within or beside houses along only a narrow strip of the North Pacific Coast, today totem poles show up in locations as varied as museums, parks, city squares, private homes, university campuses, theme parks, cruise ships, and gift shops around the world. Many misconceptions have followed these poles on their travels away from Native villages and into the public domain. For example, poles do not tell narrative stories that can be “read” from top to bottom or bottom to top like a comic strip or hieroglyph. Instead, poles are to be seen more as a cast of characters from lineage narratives or crests on family tree branches. In general, positions of figures on the pole have little bearing on their significance, despite the cliché “low man on the totem pole;” in fact, some groups put the most important family crest on the bottom, at eye level. Neither are poles suffused with spirituality, despite repeated attempts to portray them as such. The term “totem pole” itself is a bit of a misnomer, as the social and spiritual structures of Northwest Coast peoples do not conform to classic anthropological models of totemism. However, other misinterpretations follow: that poles and crest animals were worshiped as idols; that clan members practiced culinary taboos related to their crests; and that poles performed a protective function for houses or villages. None of that is true.
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Neither is the popular assumption that totem poles represent a form of art that existed in static abundance for centuries. Although carved heraldic monuments (interior house posts or panels, house entrance poles, memorial or mortuary columns) predated the arrival of Europeans to the North Pacific Coast, “the totem pole”—as an icon and idea—actually emerged and continues to change as a negotiation and involvement with, as well as reaction to, intruders into indigenous territories. The totem pole is a flexible technology that continues to express shifting identities in the settler context of North America. The most central participants in this transformative process are indigenous people themselves, who have been adapting the totem pole form to meet novel contexts of intercultural encounter. But others have contributed considerably to this history as well, including fur traders, missionaries, government officials, artists, tourists, journalists, settlers, academics, ethnographers, art critics, museum professionals, filmmakers, and photographers. Many of these outsiders found totem poles the most fascinating of Native artworks, subjecting them to varied judgments, interpretations and celebrations, and in the process imposed on them meanings that their Native creators could never have imagined. Because these reactions have integrated themselves into the concept of the totem pole, we frame this history of the pole’s transformations within the overarching and complementary themes of colonial articulation and imagination—the complex and often contradictory dynamic of both appropriation and appreciation of Native art forms. That is to say, the multiple meanings that adhere to totem poles are comprised of both indigenous realities and non-indigenous misconceptions (be they simple factual errors or wild, romantic imaginings). Thus the history of the totem pole is also a history of settler colonial relations, for it emerged over two centuries in the context of transactions between the original inhabitants of and the newcomers to the Northwest Coast.
Whatever totem poles were and are to Native people themselves, they also embody a history of intercultural contact, conflict, and exchange. To reflect this current diversity of attitudes and approaches to poles, our book includes 25 sidebars authored by scholars and artists, both Native and non, who discuss particular poles of their own choosing, as well as 7 appendices with information on specific poles in various contexts. Despite the many material transformations, as well as representations and misrepresentations, that totem poles have experienced over two centuries, they remain compelling, intriguing, and fascinating to people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – its enigmatic and ephemeral qualities, “the totem pole” has imprinted itself indelibly onto the aesthetic imagination of Natives and non-Natives alike, becoming in the process an even more complex, even more meaningful icon.
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[On the set of the Curtis film, 1913. From Bill Holm and George Quimby, Edward S. Curtis in the Land of the War Canoes]
As entry into the range of material and conceptual transformations that the totem pole has been subject to, we offer the following case study of a single pole (or rather, a pair of almost identical poles) and its wide circulation over the past century.


Sometime between 1900 and 1910, well-known Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) carver Yakudlas/Charlie James (c. 1867-1938) created two house posts for a chief of Kingcome Inlet, British Columbia. They depict a thunderbird perched atop a grizzly bear holding a human. Never integrated into the house structure for some reason, they were later moved to Ft. Rupert, where in 1913 photographer Edward S. Curtis incorporated them into the set for his silent fiction film “In the Land of the Head Hunters.” To maximize use of the same props in scenes representing different houses, Curtis temporarily altered the poles by removing the wings and adding false faces to the figures (he did the same with canoes and costumes for the film). A mostly accurate reconstruction of late 18th century Kwakwaka’wakw life, the film complimented contemporaneous museum and world fair displays of totem poles by introducing the North American public to the monuments in the larger context of popular Native American representations and entertainments. Interest in the misnamed monuments among academics and intellectuals also built on widely read books on totemism by Frazer, Durkheim, Mauss, and Freud.
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[Totem poles in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC. ca. 1928]
Around 1927, the two house posts were purchased by the gentlemanly Art, Historical, and Scientific Association of Vancouver as part of the group’s efforts to salvage indigenous arts and to stake a claim for them as British Columbia’s unique (and autochthonous) natural and cultural resources. They were installed along with a couple of taller Kwakwaka’wakw poles at Lumberman’s Arch in Stanley Park, Vancouver’s most famous tourist attraction. Here they stood for half a century, becoming among the most photographed and reproduced totem poles in the world. They also joined a similar set of house posts from Alert Bay, BC in being used to advertize steamship and rail travel to Alaska—often without acknowledgement that the poles were actually from and in Canada (the geographical generalization of Native cultural forms being a common mode of colonial appropriation).
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[Model pole by Charlie James, now in the UBC Museum of Anthropology]
Charlie James was a prolific carver of model totem poles for the burgeoning souvenir market, which began during the fur trade in the late 18th century and grew with the advent of steam, rail, and automotive tourism to the coast. Working within the conventions of Kwakwaka’wakw aesthetics, he developed a signature style (and eventually began signing his commercial artwork, although not the pieces he made for Native community members). As for many coastal First Nations, the translation of monumental or ritual artwork into miniaturized souvenir items may have been one strategy (among others) to help maintain aspects of cultural practice at a time when federal or local assimilation policy (like the 1884 Canadian potlatch prohibition) was bent on eradicating Native languages, religions, and social structures. Although he carved an enormous variety of crest images and sculptural configurations, the majority of his model poles feature outstretched wings (which may also have been his personal contribution to the development of full-sized Kwakwaka’wakw poles in the late 19th century). Despite the fact that short, winged poles were statistically rare on the Northwest Coast, their widespread miniaturization and photographic reproduction made them into the iconic totem pole form by the mid 20th century. This led them to become the template for souvenir poles and business logos all over North America, sometimes produced by other Native Americans hoping to cash in on tourist expectations of what “authentic” American Indian material culture looks like.
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[Poles in Stanley Park, 2010. Photo by Aaron Glass]
In the late 1940s, James’s granddaughter Ellen Neel—herself a carver of both full-sized and miniature totem poles—was hired to restore the Stanley Park posts. (Around the same time, Neel was also commissioned to create a winged totem pole logo when British Columbia was christened “Totemland” by a Vancouver business association.) In the early 1960s, the house posts were relocated from their original site to their current one, where they are joined by many other poles from around the coast made over the 20th century. At some point, one badly decayed original was removed to the Vancouver Museum and a poorly painted fiberglass replica erected in its place. In association with Vancouver’s Centennial and Expo ’86, Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt was hired to reproduce one of the posts, continuing a long tradition of harnessing totem poles for world’s fairs as well as provincial and federal celebrations. Hunt (assisted by Tony Hunt Jr. and non-Natives John Livingston and Phil Nuytten) turned to historic photographs to ensure that the painted designs would accurately reflect James’s originals, reflecting a trend toward historicism in the rather conservative Northwest Coast art scene, especially at that time. The Hunt family led a group of Kwakwaka’wakw dancers to ceremonially mark the erection of this new iteration, still standing today and routinely repainted to remain vibrant. The extended James/Neel and Hunt lineages were central to the revitalization of Native art and ceremony after the Canadian potlatch ban was lifted in 1951, although we are critical of the dominant “renaissance” discourse that has framed this historical development, as it implies a narrative of cultural “death-and-rebirth” that simplifies the legacy of intercultural exchange and adaptation.
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[Detail of “Reservoir.” Courtesy of the artist, Mary Anne Barkhouse]
By the late 20th century, Northwest Coast art in general and totem poles in particular became well integrated into global, indigenous art worlds, both those that value “traditional” aesthetics and those focused on more contemporary, cosmopolitan sensibilities. In the mid 1990s, Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mary Anne Barkhouse—who is a descendant of both Charlie James and Ellen Neel—came across the molds made from the original post when the fiberglass replica was produced. Working with fellow artist Michael Belmore (Ojibway), she created new molds from which she cast fragments of the house post in salt for the 1997 installation “Reservoir,” which comments on both the corrosive and preservative aspects of colonial intervention into indigenous arts. Without fully rejecting the role of museums and parks in harboring (with all the ambivalence this word implies) material elements of Native heritage, Barkhouse and Belmore point to a necessary process of decontextualization and alienation that results from severing these objects from their hereditary and customary milieu.
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Of course, nothing does the work of such de and recontextualization quite like the souvenir industry. This fridge magnet set allows consumers to literally domesticate, deconstruct, and refigure the James/Hunt pole, to recombine heraldic body parts or to graft them onto other magnetic mementos. The playing card set continues a century-long process of deterritorialization, in which Canadian poles are used to advertize Alaska (but hardly ever vice versa). This particular pole is applied to any conceivable item of disposable or collectible consumer ware—from plastic back scratchers and Frisbees to silver spoons and shot glasses. Like miniature totem poles themselves, these further material translations allow people to manipulate poles with the hands as an adjunct to transforming their conceptual and semiotic contours.
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[Totem pole in Facebook’s “FarmVille” game]
The totem pole’s amenability to endless circulation and remediation reaches a kind of perfect—if perverse—apotheosis in cyberspace, where a simple Google search will reveal all matter of sites devoted to dematerialized totem poles, both genuine and spurious. While aboriginal Facebook users (and there are A LOT of them) post announcements of new pole raisings and potlatches, any of the almost 60 million players of the site’s “FarmVille” game can now purchase their very own totem pole with the virtual proceeds of virtual harvests (or with real off-line cash) at the game’s commercial marketplace for objects with which to decorate one’s farm. Once again, totem poles become tourist attractions of a sort, luring friends to one’s private garden in order to rack up networking points. As you can see, the site’s pole is clearly derived from the Stanley Park house post, with thunderbird and grizzly replaced by the more agriculturally appropriate rooster and cow (notice the familiar color scheme as well as the distinctive white spots adorning the creatures’ cheeks). Is the appropriation an insult or an honor—an expropriation of indigenous cultural sovereignty or an inclusive gesture toward multicultural representation in a virtual marketplace of digital, ethnic objects? As with so many other aspects of Native American representation today, this is the key question at the heart of indigenous (post)modernitites in the not-yet-post colonial world of North America.
Despite the long and tumultuous history of the totem pole’s alterations, appropriations and appreciations, the carvings have survived as objectifications of personal and lineage status, cultural heritage, and political sovereignty. Old poles improperly collected are being repatriated to communities, often in exchange for newly carved replicas or replacements, reflecting new collaborative relationships with museums. New poles are going up in indigenous communities all along the coast, both on reserves/reservations and in urban spaces, as distinct indices of lasting Native presence on—and political claims to—the land. Professional artists make a living carving full-sized poles on commission. In fact, more poles were likely carved between 1970 and 2000 than between 1870 and 1900. The ubiquity of poles today is a testimony to the persistence and ingenuity of the coastal First Nations, who keep adapting the totem pole to ever shifting intercultural contexts, its material flexibility helping to ensure its lasting vitality as a monumental expression of Native cultural survival after two centuries of colonial intervention.

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