Brochure cover, Alaska Steamship Company, 1936. Credit: Jonaitis collection.
People are often astounded to
find out that totem poles were only found on a narrow strip of the west
coast and only a handful of coastal First Nations carved them prior to
the 20th century, says Aaron Glass, co-author of a new book about the
iconic Northwest coast art form.
"When I met people on airplanes and told
them I was working on this book, they were always really surprised by
that. They just thought that Indians carved totem poles."
Totem poles, he says, have been added to
the stereotype of the North American Indian, along with the teepee, the
tomahawk and the feathered headdress. The monumental carvings can be
found in front of small trading posts across the continent, as "must
haves" in the halls of prestigious museums around the world and as
municipal landmarks in cities with no historic connection to them.
"Wherever you go, it sometimes seems, you are likely to encounter a totem pole..." So begins the prologue to The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History, Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass's book about the intertwined native and non-native understanding of the totem pole.
Jonaitis, concerned that many tourists didn't understand what they
were seeing in places like Ketichikan's Totem Bight, wanted to reveal
how the enduring art form has been repackaged and repurposed since
pre-contact days. People want to recognize the figures, picking out a
raven, a bear or a killer whale, but then they walk away with the
impression that they understand the meaning of the pole. She believes
they are still missing an important part of the story.
"[People] assume this is an ancient form of
aboriginal art and that where you see these poles in Alaska, for
example, there were always poles at that site in Alaska. The point is
that neither of these things are true," she says.
The practice of carving poles is relatively
new, says Jonaitis, an art historian, director emerita of the
University of Alaska's Museum of the North and professor at the
University of Alaska Fairbanks, who set out to write a cultural
biography of the totem pole. Because of her full-time work duties, she
hired a young anthropology student, Aaron Glass, to do research for her.
He began sending her not only incredibly researched data, but in her
words, "these smart ideas about this or that facet of totem poles."
Rather than referencing his ideas, she asked if he would like to
co-author the book.
More than a decade later Jonaitis's young
student is an assistant professor of anthropology at Bard Graduate
Centre in New York City and their book has been published in Canada by
Douglas and McIntyre and in the United States by the University of
Washington Press. The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History has recently been named finalist for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize, a BC Book Prize.
The Tyee spoke by telephone with the
authors in Glass's New York office to find out why the totem pole has
held such a grasp on the popular imagination. Here is what they had to
On common misperceptions about poles:
Aaron Glass: Probably the
most significant stereotype is that they were worshipped or were objects
of spiritual attention. That they were protective of the village. While
totem poles certainly expressed aspects of First Nation spirituality,
especially their relationships with their ancestors, they are not
Part of the byproduct of totem poles
becoming so iconic, is they've become very widespread. All over North
America you can see totem poles of various shapes and sizes at trading
posts, on other native reserves and in every little tourist town.
That people don't know where totem poles
come from is probably more true in the United States than in Canada. But
you go to the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Great Hall is
filled with totem poles. Totem poles are used by Canada's national
history museum to represent the country of Canada. It's part of a long
process of using these objects to represent much broader areas. I'm not
sure that every visitor to the museum gets it. Especially when they can
drive across Canada and buy totem poles on Mikmaq, Cree and Ojibway
On why they chose to look at poles through an intercultural history lens:
Aaron Glass: As a
contemporary cultural icon, the totem pole is the result of over two
centuries of cultural contact, exchange and colonialism. It is really a
story about a long complicated process of settlement, native responses
to settlement, changing policies, practices of representation and
artists responding to these changing historical circumstances. And so
rather than drawing on the idea of a cross-cultural comparison, we
wanted to show that these are integrated histories. The term
intercultural spoke to us of this deeply intertwined history. It's been
intercultural since the day that people arrived on the shores of Alaska
and coastal B.C.
Aldona Jonaitis: If you
learn about the intercultural dimension of poles and start seeing them
in that way then you are going to get a much richer story about what the
pole is about and maybe dispel some of the stereotypes about Indians
that most people still have.
Aaron Glass: Also, the
vast majority of books about totem poles are guidebooks -- where to find
them and how to read them. The better of those books are the result of
consultation with indigenous people. Ideally the families who own poles
or who originally owned the rights to images on poles. One could
conceivably do a very sensitive and accurate book on those meanings and
stories. But that's not the book we chose to write.
On surprises that came out of the research:
Aaron Glass: The most
iconic totem pole, the classic pole that we think of today, the most
reproduced variation is a relatively short pole with a Thunderbird or
Eagle displaying outstretched wings on top of a Bear holding a person.
This type of pole was statistically incredibly rare on the coast.
In fact, it seems that all of these images
[they have a photo essay in the book] were derived from two sets of
Kwakwaka'wakw house posts. A set that stood in Alert Bay and a set that
stood in Stanley Park in Vancouver (replicas are still there). These
poles show up over and over again. Sometimes exactly as they appear in
life, sometimes with slight variations.
The disconnect between what we think of as
the iconic totem pole and what the vast majority of totem poles on the
coast actually look like, really stood out for me. Ironically, today,
you see this image mostly on souvenirs of Alaska.
On the tourism draw:
Aldona Jonaitis: What I
found most surprising is how totem poles were such a major draw for
tourism at the turn of the century. Steamships began coming up the coast
in the 1880s and we got a lot of information from travel brochures. At
the time, totem poles were the reason to travel to Alaska. Yes, you'll
see glaciers, but you'll see totem poles. Mountains and totem poles;
wildlife and totem poles. That is not the case anymore. Totem poles are
still an important part of Alaska's draw but by no means as popular as
Aaron Glass: A parallel
came later in the 20th century as part of the 1958 Centennial when the
B.C. Government decided to create the "Route of the Totems" by putting
poles at all of the border crossings and major transit routes from the
Washington/B.C. border to the B.C./Alaska border. It was originally
called the "Route of the Haidas." But only when participating native
artists and scholars complained saying there were several different
First Nations along the route, did they change it.
On why they're called totem poles:
Aaron Glass: At the turn
of the 19th century there was a lot of interest in totemism. Freud wrote
a book on this, along with famous sociologists like Emile Durkheim.
Totemism was thought to be the primordial religion. I think, in a way,
the misnomer of calling them totem poles contributed to their appeal. It
gave them an aura of exoticism. You can imagine if they were called
heraldic poles or crest poles. Totem pole implies all sorts of things
about them that is inaccurate, but is certainly appealing.
People have folded totem poles into their
experience of other monumental art forms. Like Tiki poles from the South
Pacific. Egyptian monoliths. Mesoamerican stela. Any tall cylindrical
column with stacked figures on it tends to get included in peoples'
minds. I think the sense that you can read poles as if they were
hieroglyphics or pictograms comes from people's experience with other
kinds of art forms. They resonate with other objects of civilizations.
Also keep in mind that a century ago,
people didn't think of indigenous North Americans as having
civilizations like the Aztec or the Egyptians. We've always been told
they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in small egalitarian bands --
the settler idea of who inhabited North America. And then they found
these monumental art forms attached to permanent houses and villages.
There was a disconnect in people's minds between what they thought
Native Americans were culturally, and these monumental artworks.
On the role of anthropologists in the intercultural story of totem poles:
Anthropologists have had such a major role in the history of totem
poles. They collected them, they wrote about them and then there was
someone like Franz Boas, a person who reified the poles as an important
item of First Nations art and culture.
But my favourite anthropologist is Wilson Duff. He's known for "rescuing poles"
by salvaging them -- many from Haida Gwaii. In addition, he contributed
to the notion that there was a classic style of Northwest coast art and
a classic totem pole.
Aaron Glass: The reason we
devoted a whole chapter to him is his career is a real pivot point in
the history of the totem pole and in the history of scholarly
intervention in poles.
The earliest anthropologists like Boas
collected poles under the assumption that the culture was vanishing and
wanted to save them before they disappeared. Then totem poles were used
to create theories of social evolution; they signified stages in the
longer evolutionary story about cultural development. And then you have
anthropologists involved in these larger preservation and restoration
projects. Marius Barbeau, Wilson Duff and others in the United States.
They moved poles around, usually from indigenous communities to urban
centres and museums, with the goal of making them more accessible.
Often, especially when Wilson Duff was working, extensive dialogue
happened with chiefs and owners of poles, which helped distinguish him
from earlier anthropologists.
Then you get anthropologists and other
scholars involved in promoting, exhibiting and valuing totem poles as
art. Most recently, scholars are doing detailed historical studies,
attributing 19th century poles to individual carvers as well as working
with First Nations to facilitate repatriation claims.
Duff is really a pivot point in this story,
because he starts off with the salvage project, raised totem poles into
the realm of high art and changed his own mind in the process (later he
regretted "salvaging the poles"). So he allows us to tell a lot of
Aldona Jonaitis: The thing
about Duff is he did not acknowledge the enduring nature of the pole.
He lamented how the poles no longer looked right, how the artists lost
the ability to make them. Even though poles were being made at the time
that Duff wrote, those were not the right poles. So that's why I said he
contributed to the creation of a canon. These are good poles; these are
not good poles. And he did not acknowledge the value of the continuing
nature of pole production in the 20th century.
On whether totem poles ever almost died out:
Aaron Glass: Did they
almost die out? It depends what you consider a totem pole. And it
depends which First Nations groups you're talking about and it depends
on who is answering the question. What criteria are people using to
evaluate what's a real totem pole and what is not?
Among some Haida groups, they stopped
making full-sized poles in the late 1880s right when they ramped up the
production of miniature poles. And so the miniaturization kept the totem
pole form alive among those Haida groups. At exactly the same time in
the 1880s the Kwakwaka'wakw groups started making full-size poles with
multi-figures. The ones we consider iconic today. And they never really
stopped. Then other groups like the Coast Salish who had ancestor
figures and other kinds of sculptural traditions started carving poles
in the early 20th century partially to keep up with expectations about
what Northwest coast people do.
What we argue in the book is that the totem
pole has been a constantly evolving form, so there was never a moment
when "it" almost died. It kept changing, migrating, transforming. This
is not a story of death and rebirth it is a story of continual
On the continual transformation of totem poles:
Aldona Jonaitis: There are
so many new contexts for poles. They are now commissioned by
individuals and corporations. They are raised in communities as family
memorials, they identify native space, i.e. in front of a native school
or a cultural centre. They are still important draws for tourism and
they are government diplomatic gifts. What I think is really interesting
is the notion of poles as part of the healing process. Two are
mentioned in the book: a pole in Alaska for a young man who died of a
drug overdose. And in Vancouver there is a pole memorializing a young
man killed in racial violence. This person was not even native, but the
pole is a memento of that tragic event.
Aaron Glass: Then there is
the ever-expanding role of totem pole kitsch. The pole has moved into
every possible realm of souvenir marketing (puzzles, Frisbees, magnets
and models, and don't forget haute couture as in a 1991 Isaac
Mishrahi dress). In the digital realm, on Facebook's most popular game
application, Farmville, you can now decorate your farms with different
totem poles, including the iconic pole from Alert Bay.
There is no limit to the ways poles
insinuate themselves in this contemporary world. And what is most
interesting is that in many places on the coast indigenous people are
reclaiming the totem pole to serve the function it was meant to serve,
as markers of family ancestry and claims to the land. All these other
forms are circulating globally and in cyberspace, but totem poles are
thriving on the coast to do the work of advertising native claims. In a
way that sort of counters the spread of these vapid and de-cultured
poles in other contexts.