back to the roots: the mighty have fallen

The totem poles of the Pacific were designed to vanish into the earth. Its an art that knew how to live, and then it knew how to die….Quanah Parker was most notorious for his teachings about spirituality of the Native American church. One of his famous teachings was” The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus, the Indian go into their tipi and talk with Jesus.”…

---Boys sitting on fallen totem pole, Kispiox, British Columbia, ca. 1941 Read More:

Everybody knows that nobody raises a fallen totem pole. When it falls, succumbing to elements after a lifespan of a hundred years, it remains down. Raising a new pole requires the expenditure of considerable time and wealth, but raising a fallen one, though it may have objective value, has no merit. As Edward Malin said, “it ludicrous. The pole is worthless!”Its seems like a devastating loss of property. The figures were seen by these writers and researchers as being well carved, identifiable, and even the painted details were still visible. Don’t they give a damn?

The last surviving poles usually stand in deserted villages, where the forest is slowly reclaiming its own. Often the tops are broken off and only the lower half remains. Once a pole falls to the ground it soon becomes enveloped in raspberry bushes. But yellow cedar does not capitulate so quickly, even when it is half buried in the earth. The poles lie on the ground for many years, grass growing from their nostrils, their backs partly decayed but their animal faces still formidable, the bears’ teeth ready to bite. The cedar forest begins just beyond them. The shapes of dead trees, their broken branches covered with moss, bear an uncanny resemblance to the fallen totems. Where does this art leave off and the environment begin?aaa

---Barbeau was wrong in his 1929 assessment that totem poles was a bygone artform (left). When he conducted his research in BC, from 1914 to 1920, the most intact totem pole collection was that of the Gitxsan, which consisted of over 100 poles in eight tribal villages of the upper Skeena River. Barbeau described 109 of these poles, noting that they were among the tallest in existence, some up to 60 ft in height.--- Read More:

aaaaHere too, are mounds of burial boxes, stacked up like so many drawers taken from a dresser, with only a single roof to ward off the rain. Sometimes a wooden fence has been built around the pile like a parody of a New England Churchyard. But the roof has collapsed, the contents of the coffin has spilled out, so that you see pieces of half mummified limbs: feet generally, with chalk-white toenails, or fairly lifelike hands apparently wrapped in some sort of linen, scattered among clean picked bones and skulls. aa

Emily Carr. Totem Forest.---Emily Carr visited Sitka, Alaska, in 1907; there, for the first time, she saw totem poles standing in a forested setting. Ironically, these were in a park, having been relocated from Haida and Tlingit Indian villages in a scheme to preserve them from vandalism. They so impressed her that she resolved to record all the standing totem poles in British Columbia. Between 1908 and 1912, she engaged in this ambitious project, documenting carvings on Haida Gwaii, the Skeena River and islands off northern Vancouver Island. She was alone in choosing this subject matter, with the exception of F.M. Bell-Smith, who produced two views of Alert Bay in 1909. During these early field trips, Carr worked almost exclusively in watercolour, quickly rendering her sketches under pressure of time and uncertain weather. Although they were not as accurate as she would repeatedly claim, they nevertheless capture the essence of Northwest Coast monumental sculpture and are important historical documents. --- Read More: image:


Rib cage and backbone may still be together in a recognizable relationship, but more often the skeleton is just a pile of blanched pick-up sticks. The deceased were sent on to the next world in the fetal position. They were wrapped in red trade blankets, adorned with white shell button designs, that are now in the last stages of decay, so that some skulls seem to be covered with fresh blood; dye from the blanket moldering in the rain. Other burial boxes are so old they contain nothing but humus, and already there are new bushes and cedar saplings growing out of them, just as they sprout from the broken heads of totems.

---Barbeau clearly thought highly of the aesthetic attributes of totem poles but he got it wrong when he wrote in the introduction to his book: "The art of carving poles belongs to the past." He fatalistically thought, like all other ethnologists of his time, that native culture was "dying out" along with the indigenous peoples who created it. Nowhere in his scholarly work did he pay tribute to the totem pole as a powerful political icon of resistance that defied Canada's suppression of First Nations peoples and reaffirmed their own ancient traditions and land rights. Barbeau and the artists he promoted such as Emily Carr made the totem pole into an emblem of "Indianness" that was appropriated as part of Canada's cultural identity. At the same time, Canada was engaged in the brutal dispossession of First Nations from their lands and cultures. --- Read More:

aaaaWhich suggests, that there is another lesson to be learned from these cedar sculptures, a lesson that has less to do with forms than with the dissolution of forms and the mortality of art. Much of our Western art, and Asian art as well, represents an attempt to stay the fell hand of the executioner, time and decay. From the day

the Pharaohs onward we have built monuments in stone and bronze so that we could extend our sway and power beyond the grave. Our mantra is “great art endures” , confident and a big smug in this axiom. Thus, we worry when the paint flakes off Davinci’s The Last Supper, or spend millions to adjust the climate in the Cave of Lascaux.

Alert Bay. 1900.---"In 1884 when the federal government outlawed potlatching it became increasingly rare for new poles to be carved. During the early part of this century many of the remaining poles were removed from their sites by collectors who sold the poles and other art works to museums around the world. During the 1950s however, there was renewed interest in carving the poles and a new generation of First Nations artists began to create these monuments again. Today the art of the Northwest Coast peoples is flourishing and is renowned throughout the world."--- Read More:

But the cedar figures on the totem poles abide by the timetable of the forest. These eyes, which see so profoundly beyond the surface of things, also gaze into the essential nature of this physical earth and the cycle of renewal that is necessary to it. It is an art that knew how to live, and now it knows how to die.


Within the early New York School, painters who also functioned as critics, theorists, and curators contributed in these roles to the integration
of Indian art into modernist painting. As critics and provocateurs, John D. Graham, Wolfgang Paalen, and Barnett Newman were  important for stressing the spiritual quality inherent in Indian art. Essential to their theories and criticism of Native American and other primitive arts was an understanding of myth, totem, and ritual that relates to Jung’s ideas and reveals these artists as the advocates of a  new, transformed consciousness for modern man…In “Primitive Art and Picasso” (1937) Graham continued to emphasize the dichotomies between conscious and unconscious mind and between modern and primitive culture. He explicitly stated the therapeutic importance of probing the unconscious:

---"The Kwakiutl artist painting on a hide did not concern himself with the inconsequentials that made up the opulent social rivalries of the Northwest Coast Indian scene, nor did he, in the name of a higher purity, renounce the living world for the meaningless materialism of design. The abstract shape he used, his entire plastic language, was directed by a ritualistic will towards metaphysical understanding. The everyday realities he left to the toymakers; the pleasant play of non-objective pattern to the women basket weavers. To him a shape was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings he felt before the terror of the unknowable." -Barnett Newman , The Ideographic Picture 1947---Read More:

“The Eskimos and the North American Indian masks with features shifted around or multiplied, and the Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and Haida carvings in ivory and wood of human beings and animals. these also satisfied their particular totemism and exteriorized their prohibitions (taboos) in order to understand them better and consequently to deal with them more successfully. After examining the relationship of
primitive art to evolution, psychology, and plastic form, Graham concluded: “The art of the primitive races has a highly evocative quality
which allows it to bring to our consciousness…the clarities of the unconscious mind, stored with all the individual and collective wisdom of past generations and forms… . An evocative art is the means and result of getting in touch with the powers of our unconscious. “…

Masked dancers – Qagyuhl. Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, taken c. 1907-1930. read more:

In “Totem Art,” Paalen’s essay in the issue, he wrote of the magnificent power of totem poles, counting them “among the greatest sculptural achievements of all times and observed, as did critics of Indian Art ofthe United States, “It is only in certain modern sculptures that one can find analogies to their surprising spatial conception.”

Paalen’s analysis of Northwest Coast sculpture reflected an interest in Jung: “Their great art … was of an entirely collective purpose: an art for consummation and not individual possession. “  As early as 1945, in Form and Sense, Paalefi had shown an awareness of Jungian theory. Is As with Graham’s Jungian conception of primitive art, Paalen understood that it was necessary to consider totemic systems . . . as corresponding to a certain developmental stage of archaic mentality, the vestiges of which can be found throughout mankind. For we can ascertain successive stages of consciousness: in order to pass from emotion to abstraction, man is obliged, in the maturation of each individual to pass through the ancestral stratification of thought, analogously to the evolutionary stages of the species that must be traversed in the maternal womb. And that is why we can find in everyone’s childhood an attitude toward the world that is similar to that of the totemic mind. Read More:

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One Response to back to the roots: the mighty have fallen

  1. Maureen says:

    Dave, this series is excellent. I’ve enjoyed reading every thoughtful, thought-provoking post.

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