Planning a Totem

October 8, 2012
Think about what you would commission someone to carve on a pole that would stand outside your house where everyone could see it.


A ”Fond Farewell” Article

When I changed Support4Change to a new format, I needed to delete some articles that didn’t fit in the new site but were too good to completely throw away. So I have moved many of them here to the blog, where they will still be available and people can find them by using tags. Enjoy.

Today’s Fond Farewell is part of the former Take-a-Break series. Use today’s post as a respite from today’s “to-dos” and have a little fun.


Totem pole in Ketchikan, AlaskaWe began a tour of Alaska in Ketchikan in 2000 and the first morning attended a talk in the Westmark Cape Fox Hotel. Joe Williams, who is an informative and humorous Native speaker, told us about the customs of his people — and encouraged us to leave some of our children’s inheritance in Alaska.

One of the things that somewhat surprised me was that he is NOT an Eskimo. Rather, he is an “Eagle” and a member of the Tlingits, who comprise the largest group of Northwest Coastal Indians and primarily live in seaside towns and villages. Since I thought the Alaskan Natives are called Eskimos, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know about Alaska — and there is still much I need to learn. But some of what I now know forms the basis of the this Take-a-Break.

Let me explain by describing two characteristics of the Tlingits as I understand them.

Tlingit Relationships

First, in this culture relationships are quite complex and everyone follows their heritage through blood lines, home territories and ancestral clan houses. To begin with, each person is either Eagle or Raven, the same as his or her mother. The moieties were further divided into many families, or clans, each identified by their crests. Some of the Raven clans include Frog, Coho Salmon, and Swan, while those of the Eagle include Killer Whale, Shark and Bear.

Traditionally, everyone had to marry someone of the opposite group. This is what sociologists call a “moiety.” (However, if you were an Eagle and really, really wanted to marry someone who was also an Eagle, or was not even a Tlingit, you might get a Raven to adopt that person, clearing the way to a sanctioned union.) Another fascinating fact was the concept in the old Tlingit tradition in which children were taught life skills by their maternal aunts and uncles.

The consequence of this arrangement is that people in the same moiety may refer to each other as brothers and sisters, whether or not they are blood kin and the members of the Tlingits are all “family,” either through blood relations or through tribal ways.

The implications of this arrangement can be seen in the cultural pressure to respect one another and follow the ways of their people, since whatever one person does affects the entire community. Thus younger people take care of the older people, who in turn teach them. And since they value the ethic of fairness, if someone does something good or helps in some way, they are repaid with gifts or services of equal value.

Tlingit Totems, Crests, and Symbols

This leads us to the second characteristic of Tlingits that relates to this Take-a-Break. It is something that all tourists soon discover. They are noted woodworkers and weavers. Whether hand carved totem poles, ceremonial masks, bent wood boxes, robes woven with intricate geometric patterns, or flamboyant headdresses, the designs are expressions of their complex culture.

The massive totem poles interest me most. Emblazoned with bold, stylized designs that depict animals and humans, they stand in the open for all to see. But these designs are not merely decorations, nor are they icons of worship as some who are unfamiliar with the culture mistakenly believe. Rather, they are important crests that signify ownership, relationships and family histories. In fact, they represent that much less visible, but more unifying and complicated, relational aspect of Tlingit culture.

Traditionally the carver would be commissioned by a member of the opposite moiety. I don’t know if that is still true today, although the skill of carving is being revived. The pole’s owner pays the carver and all those who helped, often by hosting a potlatch party, which has to be one of the most elaborate, generous, and traditional family gatherings of all time.

When the completed pole is raised, the carver tells what the designs signify and the “story” of the pole. In fact, it is important that only the person or group who carved or commissioned the piece is entitled to explain the crests on a totem. The Alaska Geographic Society notes in “Native Cultures in Alaska,” 1996, “Dances, songs, stories and clan crests are ‘owned’ by individuals and clans. A source of irritation among some Tlingits today is what they see as disrespect from visitors who take pictures, make tape recordings or copy crest designs without permission.”

However, when I visited a totem restoration center, the guide made certain we had time to take pictures of a totem that was designed for that center. And other places we visited seemed to encourage, or at least allow, picture taking.

Commissioning Your Own Totem

As you consider doing today’s Take-a-Break, I suggest you think of it this way. Throughout history, politicians and people in power have commissioned memorials to their heroes Statues of pioneers, soldiers fallen in battle, generals and explorers are given prominent places in our city parks. On the front of public buildings are carved mottos of lofty ideals. In fact, maybe you walked into high school through a door above which was chiseled a quotation by a great author or politician. Can you still remember it?

But now imagine that you could commission a pole, or similar object, that would be placed in your city park to tell the story you want to share about your community — OR — in your front yard to tell the story you want to share about you and your family.

What would you like it to say? What symbols would you choose to represent the story you want to share? What would convey the relationships of the people that this totem or carving will represent?

Makes an interesting exercise, doesn’t it? In fact, once I decided this would be the topic of a Take-a-Break, I’ve been wondering myself what I would choose. Today’s culture offers a plethora of symbols. Computers for our fascination with technology. Religious symbols that divide us. Guns for war and violence in movies, TV and on the streets. Dollar bills for the pursuit of money. Skinny models for our pursuit of the perfect body. And on and on.

But wait, we also need to represent our genuine good intentions despite our failings. Religious symbols that unite us (although they also sometimes divide us). The love we feel toward friends and family. The thousands of hours that volunteers give to make our communities a better place to live. And on and on.

In any case, now that I’ve put the idea into your head, maybe you will pay greater attention to the statues in your parks and read more carefully the inscriptions above public buildings. That just might be a beginning step in planning, if only in your imagination, the totem you would carve for all to see.

© Copyright 2000, Revised 2002, Arlene Harder, MA, MFT

 Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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