Monday, March 12, 2012

TOTEM POLES

I’ve placed photographs of my brother Paul’s yard on my blogs in the past – scenes of his beautiful garden, benches, and lattices he has built to create a lush California scene that deserves to decorate a postcard. Yesterday, his wife, Lori, sent me a photograph of the latest addition to his yard that she and Paul saw and bought on a walk through the neighborhood in northern California – a totem pole. I’ve included the photograph of it but have no idea what this particular totem symbolizes. I do know that totem poles are often representative of kinship groups and aren’t objects of worship.

In the particular coastal area where Paul lives, totem poles are more common than in southern California and are the products of local descendants of aborigines. The carving culture has actually moved down from British Columbia and Washington to this area along the northern coast. Although the totem poles once represented clan lineage and legends, today, they are mostly artistic representations.

Some of them have been used in aboriginal cultures to represent shamanic powers, but I don’t think Paul’s carving belongs in that category. During the 18th century, Christian missionaries denounced totem poles as objects of heathen worship and tried to destroy them. In some places, notably in Canada and the Southwest, totem poles have been labeled as “junk art,” a naming that demeans native cultures and the skillful carvers within those cultures.

Totem carvers often use animals to denote special powers of the individual owning them. In my young adult book, Martin Finds His Totem, Martin, the hero, who has Cajun and Chitimacha lineage, sets out to find his totem and discovers that a hawk is the bird that will represent his special healing powers. The passage in which he discovers his totem:

“Through the drizzle, I glimpsed a long-winged hawk, with an equally long tail and gray back and head, soaring just above the ground around the lake, its wings held back in a V. Then I heard a squealing noise and knew that the hawk had flown close to the ground to overtake a field mouse by surprise. The hawk dropped out of my vision, but when it soared above a tree, I heard it make a sharp whistling sound like “kee-kee.” I was fascinated at the sight of him and decided not to leave my tent or to give up my search for a totem. Could the hawk be the animal I looked for? My dad called this bird, with its disk-shaped face like an owl, a harrier, and I knew the hawk had keener hearing than other hawks. What a powerful totem he would make if he was mine. But how would I know?…”

Martin makes this choice of a hawk for his totem because he’s told by a shaman that every young man needs a dream animal to protect him.  In actuality, many carvers of animal totems that decorate poles feel that the bears, birds, and other animals represent protection for the carvers.

I’ve written Paul's wife, asking her to identify the carvings on the new totem pole and to tell me what they symbolize.  I hope that his new object of yard art isn't one of the totems that shows symbols of quarrels and murders about which Native Americans prefer to keep silent --the topmost figure is rather ominous-looking!

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