Nature Notes

Vol. XII December, 1934 No. 12

The Story of a Totem Pole
(continued from October)

Totem Pole

The Whale was a familiar--almost a household animal to the Indians who roamed and hunted along the ocean beaches. They were impressed by his enormous size and strength. In the education of youth, his fearsome appearance was called upon to impress the idea of speedy misfortune to those who traveled in bad company. It seems that two little boys of the Tulalip Tribe were brothers, and yet very disimilar in disposition and behavior. The younger was the pride of his father's heart, even-tempered and obedient; the elder was willful, and headstrong. One day the brothers were fishing for flounders on the open ocean when a whale swam slowly into view, and the ill-tempered brother began to call to him in insulting terms. "Go away old Bad Breath!", he shouted. "We can't stand your ugly face." The whale made no reply, but simply opened his cavernous jaws and swallowed the fishing expedition, canoe, boys, and all. Moral: People are judged by the companions they keep. In the old days the great, brown Grizzly roamed over the same country as the Black Bear. Now near a certain Indian village there lived a mother Black Bear and a Grizzly--each with a pair of twin cubs. The Grizzly mother, as was the custom among the wisest of animals, instructed her children in the ways of life from the time that they were tiny balls of fur until they began to gather huckleberries for themselves. But the Black Bear mother was unable to exact obedience from her willful children, and as a consequence did not teach them about the dangers of the outdoors. When then, both mothers happened to be captured and killed by the Indians, the little cubs were left to shift for themselves in the forest. The Black Bear youngsters speedily starved to death because they had not profited from their mother's experience, while the little Grizzlies grew safely to maturity. Moral: Indian boys and girls who do not listen to mother may expect to find trouble.

One figure on thee Totem pole represents, not an animal but a mythical giant of unpronounceable name, and unreal expression. The Giant folk were twenty-five feet high and lived in the dim days even before the Indians were created, which is indeed a very long time ago. The Giant figure represents a queer legend that Man has not always ruled the world, in fact his position as conquerer is to be brief and sooner or later all the creatures, even the tiny ants and insects will have their turn to rule. (Here is a belief strangely reminiscent of the modern concept of biological evolution and the successive dominance of different types of animal life).

Resting in the position due a bird of noble lineage, the Eagle stands erect with folded wings on the peak of the Totem. So much of tribal reverence and legend is tied in with the Eagle that it is hard to separate the various ideas for which this figure is symbolic. Eagle feathers formed the war bonnets of the noblest men of the tribe, and death was the fate of an individual who brought dishonor to the tribe while wearing them. Since the Eagle was a dweller of the lofty, sun-filled heights, it is fitting that he should be considered as keeper of the highest ideals of the redman's life; fitting that the growing child should associate this splendid bird with the finest things to be striven for in his development.

--Victor Scheffer,
Season 1934.

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