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Friday, February 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Still Standing: From fine art to the trinket trade, a Native tradition survives

Somewhere out there in America, Internet entrepreneurs are selling "Northwest Coast-style totem poles" on eBay for prices starting at about $30. These totems are hand-carved and hand-painted, 20 to 30 inches tall, and they look very Northwest.

I know, because I bought one. And today it sits on my fireplace mantel with the rest of my growing collection of model totem poles. I like it.

But it's worth noting that said totems are hand-carved by a family in Indonesia. They may be Northwest "style," but they are definitely not Northwest Coast.

So it goes with the quintessential icon of the Pacific Northwest. Once upon a time, the people who lived in this soggy corner of the continent whittled away at native cedar logs and created exquisite renditions of Northwest creatures, real and mythical — bears and orcas and frogs and the obligatory, spread-winged Thunderbird. Painted in blacks and earthy reds, those sculptures were instantly recognized as distinctly us.

To appreciate their artistry, stop by the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, which is displaying much of its Native American carving in a new exhibit — "Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles."

Today, our icon belongs to the world.

Click onto eBay and search for "totem," and you will get hundreds of hits. You will find Navajo totems, Iroquois totems and Seminole totems. You will find totems made of plastic or cast iron or cardboard, painted in every imaginable hue including phosphorescent yellow and pink. You will find totem pole salt-and-pepper shakers, made in China. You will find totem-shaped whiskey or perfume bottles, spoons and candles and door knockers and bottle openers. You will find Muppet totems, and Winnie the Pooh totems and, yes, Mickey Mouse totems, with Mickey sitting atop Goofy, selling for $25 or more.

Here and there, you may find the odd legitimate Northwest model totem — skillfully carved from red or yellow cedar, in symmetrical forms and signed by the artist. And it's nice to know that totems carved or believed to be carved by Northwest Native Americans still bring the best prices — frequently into three and four digits.

But most of what's for sale out there is about as Northwest as pepperoni pizza. The totem pole has been yanked from the bosom of the Northwest. It has been borrowed, altered, derived and effectively corrupted into terrible things that bear no real resemblance to the little model totem poles we know and love.

And somehow it doesn't seem right.

And somehow it seems perfectly appropriate, because we started it. The desecration of the Northwest Coast totem pole started right here at home. Consider:

• Totem poles are not native to Puget Sound Country. Historians tell us that totems as we know them were part of the culture of just three coastal tribes — the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian — who lived hundreds of miles north of here in British Columbia and Alaska. Puget Sound Indians did not traditionally carve totems, and it is unlikely that Chief Seattle ever saw one.

• Even those northern people carved big totems exclusively. The much smaller model totems were produced only when the tourists began to show up, shopping for souvenirs.

• Even the word "totem" is not Northwest. It was borrowed from the Algonquian language of the Ojibwa people some 2,000 miles east of here.

Over the past century, totem poles have traveled from the shores of the Pacific to the shelves of airport gift shops and to the brink of extinction — and back again. To a great extent, that cultural journey mirrors the recent history of the people who created the enduring art form in the first place.

• • •

AUTHORITIES AREN'T sure how long those northern Native peoples had been carving totems. The raw material being highly biodegradable, old totems have long since deteriorated, leaving little evidence of what was carved before European contact. Some early European explorers collected samples of Northwest carving, and those artifacts remain in European museums. But other explorers such as George Vancouver did not report seeing totems, leading some authorities to believe that totems were rather scarce until the newcomers arrived with iron carving tools.

Still, carving was clearly an essential part of the Northwest culture, says Robin Wright, a UW art historian who works with the Northwest collections at the Burke Museum.

Their purpose was "to display family crests," Wright explains. "They were heraldic crests that belonged to noble families." Their most important function may have been to denote the clan association of a particular household.

The shape and style of the art varied from one culture to the next, she says. While the northern Haidas and Tlingits carved the familiar totems, other tribes such as the Kwakiutl, who lived along the central British Columbia coast, produced handsome carvings that doubled as house posts. The Puget Sound Salish people were more likely to produce carved panels, few of which have survived.

By the mid-19th century, as whites arrived and controlled the region, they brought the iron tools that may have enabled coastal artists to carve deeper and faster. But they also brought epidemics of smallpox and other diseases that killed thousands of people, sometimes entire villages. Then the white governments banned the "potlatch" ceremonies; the gift-giving feasts were believed to undermine the community work ethic. Since totem poles were closely related to the potlatch, they, too, were prohibited.

Meanwhile, pioneer anthropologists and tourists descended on coastal villages and began to collect artifacts for East Coast museums. In 1899, some Seattle businessmen, touring the Alaska coast, sawed down a giant totem in the southeastern village of Tongass, shipped it home to Seattle and raised it with great fanfare in Pioneer Square. A replica of that pole still stands there.

But the same invaders who stole and outlawed totems may also have helped save them — albeit inadvertently. By the late 19th century, steamships full of tourists were sailing through the spectacular Inside Passage, stopping in coastal villages to snap photos of the Natives. The Canadian Pacific Railroad went so far as to turn one village's totems to face passing tourists.

The tourists, in turn, wanted souvenirs, and the Natives obliged.

"Most people couldn't pack up a full-sized totem," explains Bill McLennan, a curator at the British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. "They wanted something portable."

The first models were produced by Haida carvers — and not from wood, but argillite, a soft, black, soapstone-like mineral found exclusively at a single quarry in the Queen Charlotte Islands, McLennan says. Initially, argillite was carved for trade with visiting sailors, but eventually they were sold to tourists as well.

In time, the small sculptures proved so popular, and profitable, that neighboring tribes resumed carving. The model totems took the same characteristic forms — stylized bears, birds, whales and other regional creatures, usually painted in deep reds, blacks and greens. The government officials and missionaries who had banned the potlatch considered this enterprise to be industrious, and encouraged it.

"There was more travel, leading to an exchange of ideas," Wright says. "Gradually, the custom moved southward."

And beyond. The 1893 Chicago World's Fair included an elaborate display of Northwest arts — not just model totems, but entire villages with model houses and model canoes, all commissioned by Franz Boaz, the pioneer anthropologist who had collected countless coastal artifacts for Eastern museums.

Eventually, Native Americans across the country were producing their own totems. Skilled carvers were sought out by museums and subsidized by both the U.S. and Canadian governments — especially during the Great Depression. Eventually, totems were being mass-produced in small factories.

The market has moved overseas as well. Dorothy Martin, manager of Hill's Native Art in Vancouver, B.C., sees a steady flow of German tourists in her shop. "They're very sophisticated and interested in it," she says. "I'm told it started with German children's stories about Canada and First Nations people. Now they have clubs and perform Native dances and ceremonies."

• • •

NATIVE ART has become big business, supporting scores of artists and shops from Anchorage to San Francisco and beyond. A Vancouver company called Boma, founded by a Russian-Swiss immigrant, has been manufacturing resin copies of traditional argillite totems for four decades. They've expanded into prints and other artifacts, and founder Boris Mange reports they're doing just fine.

Given today's technology, totems are relatively easy to reproduce — legally or otherwise. One well-known Makah artist sued and won when he discovered that Alaska shops were selling model totems with his counterfeit signature. A few years ago, two Seattle merchants paid $40,000 in fines for selling thousands of pieces of art advertised as Native-made when they were not.

If globalization has watered down the original arts, it has also had benefits. Wright and other authorities emphasize that it was the tourist traffic in model totems and other Northwest arts that enabled coastal carvers to survive the grim years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Canadian artists such as Charlie James, Ellen Neel, Mungo Martin and Ray Williams were able to make a living with their carving. They, in turn, passed their skills along to the next generation of carvers such as Bill Reid of Canada.

Model totems from that period are scarce, and in great demand. A Charlie James totem, if it could be found, would sell for the price of a decent car.

Robin Wright, at Seattle's Burke Museum, is trying to track down the carvings from the 1893 Fair, which were scattered across the art world. Some were preserved at the Field Museum in Chicago, but she's found others as far-flung as Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Vienna. And she's still hunting.

• • •

TODAY, MODEL totems remain a standard souvenir for visitors to this region. To sample the fare, take a stroll down First Avenue and the waterfront. Start with the gift shops around the Pike Place Market, where you'll find 6- or 8-inch totems lined up like canned goods right next to the T-shirts and miniature Space Needles. The thunderbird wings may swivel, and it may look like it was carved with a chainsaw, but that's what you get for $50 to $100.

Look a little farther and you'll find The Legacy, which has been selling high-end regional Native American art since the 1930s. Here you can buy a 10-inch totem signed by the carver for $1,200, or a 9-foot, full-sized model for $25,000.

The middlebrow market is a short walk down the hill at Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, a family-owned landmark that has been selling model totems since the 1890s. Here the door itself is framed in totems. And inside you need to get past the glass-encased mummies and plastic trinkets to find an entire corner devoted to model totems, standing wingtip-to-wingtip against the back wall.

"I think my great grandfather had a lot of influence on the art," says Andy James, the latest of four generations who have sold totems here. "He cut pictures from a big anthropology book, loaned them to Native artists and told them: 'If you can carve this, I can sell it.' And he did."

James won't hazard a guess at how many totems his family has sold, except to say "thousands" — everything from 4-inch Boma replicas to 6-foot originals, at prices ranging from $10 to $1,000 or more.

"Years ago, we had a carver who called himself Chief White Eagle who carved small totems and painted them in fluorescent colors — mainly because he had a lot of that paint," James says. "They were really awful. But we couldn't get enough of them. People came in, looked at the good stuff, then turned around and spotted those fluorescent totems, and that's what they wanted."

Behind the counter, Jim Breen specializes in totems. He sold them here in the 1960s, and has been collecting them ever since. The clientele, he says, is a mix of souvenir-hunters and serious collectors, and he can satisfy both.

Given the opportunity, however, he pushes the work of a select few artists — particularly Rick Williams, who comes from a Canadian Nitinaht family that has been carving for generations.

These days, Williams lives with his wife and three sons in the old industrial town of Concrete in the Upper Skagit Valley. He says he's been carving for 41 years, since he was 6. He works long days, either in his shop or, weather permitting, alongside Highway 20, where he sells his work to passersby. When I talked to him, he was sharpening his Old Timer pocket knife, and packing up a 30-inch, $1,000 totem for shipment to a gallery in Switzerland.

To this point, Williams' work does not qualify as museum art — perhaps because he is so prolific. Like all art, the value of totems is based in large part on supply, and there is no scarcity of Rick Williams totems. After all those years, he has "no clue" how many he has produced. On a good day, he can carve an 18-inch totem, or a couple of 12-inchers.

He's aware of the competition — the molded resin copies and the overseas knock-offs. "Some guy keeps calling me, wanting to make molds and do some mass marketing or something," Williams says. "But that doesn't feel right.

"Besides, there are plenty of people out there who want to buy my work. I don't have any trouble selling what I carve, and I'm supporting my family. What else can I ask?"

To a casual collector, his totems are skillfully rendered, intricate and handsome. They would stand up well to those museum pieces up at the Burke.

But what do I know? I'm the guy whose mantel is graced by a totem pole carved in Northwest Indonesia.

I know this: That a few regional artists like Rick Williams are helping keep alive something important, an art form that helps distinguish this soggy coastline from the great sweep of homogenized American culture.

Yes, totem poles can be copied from pictures in magazines and popped from resin molds. They can depict Apache warriors, or Mickey Mouse and Goofy. They can be sold for $10 or $10,000 and displayed in living rooms in Seattle or Switzerland.

But our regional icon is safe as long as Williams is out there, sitting beside the highway and using a pocket knife to transform a block of clear-grained cedar into a mythical montage of Northwest orcas and brown bears topped off by a spread-winged thunderbird.

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter, now a free-lance writer in Seattle.

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