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Thursday, September 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Art Review

Carving out history: Totems stand tall in new Burke exhibit

Seattle Times staff reporter

Opening Thursday


"Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles." Burke Museum, University of Washington, Thursday through Sept. 1. For information, see the Burke Museum site or 206-543-5590.

Some things you might be used to seeing on a totem pole: a raven, a bear, an eagle, maybe a frog or a killer whale. But a Russian soldier?

Looking like he'd be more at home on a nutcracker, the uniformed military man gazes out from a red-cedar pole carved in the late 1800s by a Haida craftsman in the Southeast Alaska village of Howkan. He's believed to be a "ridicule figure," possibly shaming the Russians for taking land from native peoples without paying for it.

That 6-foot-tall pole, a small version of one that stood in front of a native leader's dwelling, is among more than 100 carvings, photographs, films, demonstrations, lectures and other activities in "Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles," opening next Thursday at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.

"Totem poles have always been an extremely important and powerful part of Northwest Coast culture," said Robin Wright, the museum's Curator of Native American Art. The event, the Burke's largest exhibit since a major remodel in 1997, will challenge and expand the public's understanding of these carvings and the people who created them.

The "silence" in the event's title refers to decades in which traditional totem-pole carving ceased, due to an 1884 Canadian ban against potlatch ceremonies. A potlatch was a required part of raising a totem pole because it demonstrated community recognition of the status and heritage of the chief for whom the pole was raised. The potlatch ban remained in place until 1951.

American officials, without enacting a formal ban, also discouraged native traditions, languages and practices in their efforts to assimilate tribal peoples into the institutions and authority spread by the European settlers.

Evocative photographs from a 1971 book, "Out of the Silence," by photographer Adelaide de Menil and Haida artist Bill Reid are a major component of the display. The photos are selected from some 20,000 de Menil took during her travels in the 1960s. Some are the sole remaining evidence of carvings which have since been obscured by time and the elements.

A key image for the event shows a beaver totem standing as a virtual gatepost to the forest at Howkan.

Reviving an art form

As important as the "silence" aspect of the event is the "enduring power." Totem-carving did not bounce back rapidly after the potlatch ban, but in the final decades of the 20th century, native artists and instructors rekindled the carving arts, which are now experiencing a wide revival. Native carvers will demonstrate their skills inside the museum, and by next spring, larger projects may be under way in covered areas outside.

The six major cultural groups represented in the event, whose home territories ranged from Western Washington through British Columbia to Southwest Alaska, are the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit.

The northernmost tribes, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit, carved multilevel poles, the form outsiders are most familiar with, poles that often display animal figures from the crests of the pole's owner.

The Haida pole with the Russian soldier, for example, also features an eagle and owl from the crests of Chief Thomas Skulka and his wife, Tauhl Kít Kát, in Howkan, Alaska.

Southern tribes carved more single-figure poles in honor or memory of a specific individual, Wright said.

David Boxley, 50, and his son, David R. Boxley, 21, Tsimshian artists with a studio in Kingston, are living testimony to the rebirth of totem-carving, and will bring projects to work on at the Burke Museum.

"There was no native art in our village when I was growing up," said the elder Boxley. His home of Metlakatla near Ketchikan was settled under the influence of a missionary who sought to draw native people away from their traditional religion and culture.

Boxley grew up with an interest in art, but didn't learn about his people's traditional carving style until, in his college years, he visited British Columbia museums featuring Tsimshian works.

Today he and his son, who raised his first totem last year, are highly regarded for their masks, bowls, boxes and poles. "The revival is not just in carving," Boxley said, "but in singing, dancing and every part of the culture. ... Whole generations are growing up with a better sense of who they are."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com.

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