Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

And All the Tribes Fear Him

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

And All the Tribes Fear Him

Article excerpt

The Inside Passage of the Pacific Northwest--the waterway from Seattle to Alaska--is a place of mountains and sea, islands and surf and eagles, whales and canoes and fantastic art. Its gardens are tangles of thorny rosebushes and delicate ferns, made radiant by the setting sun, whose light is thrown up again and again from deep sea water. Here one eats salmon and clams outdoors among tall and fragrant cedars, and listens for the wing-beats of the Thunderbird--that mighty avian that hunts whales, stunning them with the twin Lightning Snakes that live under its wings, and carrying them off to the skyscraping mountain peaks to feast. (1) But if you do not glimpse the Thunderbird, then at least you can hope to catch sight of a tiny golden hummingbird sipping eagerly from a thicket of fuchsia.

Somewhere in this verdant seascape, near the Queen Charlotte Strait in the late nineteenth century, a native Kwakwaka'wakw artist carved a model totem pole. With the influx of European traders had come many new complications, among them Christianity and disease, but also new pigments and an eager market for the native art, which was unlike anything seen in the rest of the world. The coastal tribes' towering totem poles, tremendous cedar logs carved with the highly stylized images of a family's crest and heritage and raised to commemorate their potlatch feasts, truly evoked the old metaphor: they captured the imagination. They still do. To meet the sudden demand for their highly unique art, enterprising native sculptors created "model" totem poles: smaller versions of their titanic originals, suitable for tourists to purchase and carry away. Our artist chose to create his model totem pole in the distinctive sculptural style of the Kwakwaka'wakw people, but with the unusual subject of a nursing mother at the top, seated on a sea monster. The other characters, in descending order, included a wolf, an octopus, and a man. In addition to traditional black, the model was painted with ultramarine and vermilion, non-local pigments available only through trade with Europeans. (2)

Authors Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass describe the history of the totem pole as "a history of colonial relations, for it emerged ... in the context of transactions between the original inhabitants of and the newcomers to the Northwest Coast." (3) This is especially true of model totem poles, which were essentially created as souvenirs. They serve as "significant documents of the intercultural encounter. Carvers understood and took advantage of the ready market for these items, which they knew would travel ... to territories remote from their own, by people who had little understanding of the subtleties of their artistic and cultural heritage." (4) As souvenirs, the models did little to educate their new owners about the deeper cultural realities of native artists, but instead became the locus of personal memories and the embodiment of assigned meanings; outsiders subjected both models and full-size totem poles to "varied judgments, interpretations, appropriations, or celebrations, and in the process imposed on the artworks meanings that their Native creators could never have imagined." (5)

A text in a new context

Many years later, the model totem pole was photographed for a book called The Box of Day light, edited by the art historian Bill Holm, who first undertook to formally analyze the unique characteristics of Northwest Coast native art. (6) The book is filled with samples of all the power and splendor of the artistic vision of the coastal tribes, with its refracted forms and ovoid shapes that seem to capture the essence of life as reflected in sea water, and of the mythical understanding that all the animals used to be people. (7)

This model totem pole in particular captured my imagination because it features a nursing mother seated on a sea monster--two images that are evocative for most, if not all the human race. For anyone who has studied the biblical accounts of creation with Dr. …

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