Nature Notes

Vol. XII October, 1934 No. 10

The Story of a Totem Pole

totem pole

Those of us who prowl occasionally in the souvenir shops of the seaports are familiar with the brightly painted totem poles that epitomize so well the color and the romance of the North Pacific Indian. We have been told, of course, that these bits of wood are more than decorative ornaments, but yet we seldom appreciate the wealth of history that clings to their carved figures of fearsome beasts and grinning men. Around a small totem in the Park museum, for instance, we can weave not only a story of aboriginal Indian life but also one of the early days when the white man first began to "civilize" the native stock. This is the story from the lips of Chief William Shelton of the Tulalip Tribe, carver and donor of the totem.

When Isaac Stevens became the first governor of Washington Territory in 1853, he asked the Indians to forget the traditions and folkways that linked them to the past, and to adopt the customs of the white men. In fact, he even went so far in his desire to "Americanize" the Indian as to forbid the carving of totem poles by the old men of the tribes. Lacking the fierce tribal spirit of the Aztecs of the South who resisted the advent of their conquerers to the very end, the Puget Sound peoples gradually changed to a race of moderns with but a hazy recollection of the beautiful traditions of the past. Among the craftsmen of the Tulalips there were, however, a few who kept the tribal legends alive from year to year and did not lose the knack of carving the stories into wood. So now, with a fresh appreciation of the historical value of the Indian legends, the totem carvers are endeavoring to resurrect their art before it has been displaced forever by the textbook learning of the white man.

Chief William tells us that the totems of his tribe were carved with two ideas in mind; one to keep alive the legends, and another to educate the growing children of the community. The highest type of Indian conscientiously strove, to bring up his children to be self-reliant, clear-thinking, obedient, and especially to be brave. He apparently appreciated the value of material objects, like the alphabet blocks of our modern schools, in fixing ideas in the plastic minds of little children. The totem in the Park museum is intended for such a purpose. From the base to the top of the pole are arranged six animal figures brightly painted in red, black, and white; Kingfisher, Shark, Whale, Grizzly Bear, Giant, and Bald Eagle. Indian legends dealt with the birds, mammals, and fish as beings with human attributes, with family life and social instincts, but lacking only the high intelligence developed by man. Perhaps the Indians here recognized the primitive kinship of man and other animals. He taught his children also that man's rise to earthly power was but temporary, and that sooner or later each of the other animals would have its turn at ruling the world. Chief William interprets the meaning of his carved figures, as follows:

Once upon a time when the animals lived and talked with men, the Kingfisher was smitten with the charms of a black-haired Indian maiden. Now the Kingfisher is a handsome, dashing fellow, with his blue-and-white feathers and strong, flashing wings. The maid could not help but succumb to the ardent wooing of the Kingfisher. But, unfortunately for the course of true love, she happened to be already married to the Crane, a bird of somewhat hasty temper,--and incidently possessing a sharp, wicked bill. Surprising the two lovers one day, the Crane stabbed the Kingfisher through the heart, thus bringing a sudden end to the romance. The moral to Indian maidens was probably this: In choosing a husband, select the warrior and not the young man with snappy apparel.

Above the Kingfisher on the totem pole is the head of a Shark. The Shark embodied the spirit of danger in the outdoor world. For Indian lads who failed to heed their parents and prepare themselves for emergencies, the Tiger of the Sea was always lying in wait. Pity the unfortunate boy who failed to listen to the forecasts of his elders of an approaching storm, and ventured out beyond the surf in his fishing canoe. For boys who schooled themselves to obedience and preparedness against possible mishaps, the Shark held no fear.

(To Be Continued In The December Issue)

--Victor Scheffer,
Season 1934

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