Tribal Totemism


Totems were highly visible sign of success and wealth of the native cultures that evolved along the coast, whether Haida, Kwakiutl, Tlingit, or Tsimshian. Sheltered by a benevolent forest, blessed with a flood-filled sea, the tribes could afford the luxury of permanent village sites and ornamental art. Their art celebrated legends, events, or simply the wealth and crest of the family for whom it was carved. The poles had no religious significance, but were records of the past in a society where there was no written language. [caption id="attachment_156334" align="alignleft" width="270"] TOTEM POLES. They were carved to show the number of rights a person had acquired over a lifetime, to tell a story, to recount a supernatural experience, or symbolize generosity of someone in the tribe, specifically one who sponsored an event such as a ceremony. The poles may depict familiar legends, clan lineages or notable events. Some figures serve as symbolic reminders of fights, murder, debt or past troubles.[/caption] Totem poles are more than stories. Hidden among the figures are layers of intertwined meaning. One figure may represent more than one thing. For example, Bear may be a family crest, the telling of Bear's story, or a lesson to remind Native people that self-sacrifice is desirable. Furthermore, the whole pole may be a memorial to an honored elder or serve as testimony that the carver has, for example, overcome an addictive habit. Certain figures appear on totem poles as a symbol of the owner's rights to tell stories or sing the songs associated with one's phratry or family kinship. These figures include the popular Bear, who represents a common story with wide rights of telling, or Raven and one of his cycle of stories. Southern bands carve poles with more narrative figures. Today, stories are told freely without much regard to traditional rights. In some cases, the figures on totem poles are meant to recall a heroic exploit, the sufferings of a brave person, or a memorable disaster such as a flood or volcanic eruption. Since the events are primarily important to Native people, they are not always familiar to outsiders. The outstanding art form that totem pole carving embodies has advanced to the point where modern artists carve poles with loose relationships to past practices. Tribal styles are liberally interpreted; stories are given new twists; phratry crests are included with or without rights. …

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