totem: tyranny of appearances

They were conceived to vanish into the earth. The totem poles of the Pacific, from Vancouver island to Alaska, standing on the edge of cedar forests staring out to the sea, were an art that knew how to live, and an art that knows how to die. …

This is an art of faces and eyes that goes far beyond the Greek ideal of the imitation of nature; perhaps something which has hamstrung the European tradition for over two thousand years.Though undeterred by the tyranny, even the most abstract of the totem faces are somehow remarkable alive. Perhaps the head hunting tendencies along the coast had something to do with giving the Indian carvers this superb appreciation of what goes on above the neck.

---The Kwakiutl Totem Pole, carved at Victoria, British Columbia by Henry Hunt of the Kwawkewlth Indian Band, wa donated by the Native people of British Columbia to commemorate the centenary of the union of the province of British Columbia with Canada, 20 July 1871.--- Read More:

We know from other parts of the world that hunters are the keenest observers and thus potentially the best artists; certainly there have never been more vivid animal paintings than those of the sorceror hunters of Lascaux.The sculptors of the northwest coast, oddly enough, prized human faces and animal heads but cared nothing at all for the body. At best, they simply dissected it, and they could pass with perfect equanimity, and without a break in line from showing us the outside of a whale; the fins, eyes, mouth and tail; to the inside with a cross-section of the bone structure and a catalogue of the contents of the stomach.

---The theory of cultural interchange between Polynesia and the Northwest Coast was early expounded by the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, who visited Bella Coola in the late 1930s where he elaborated his belief that Polynesians had first come there from Southeast Asia before sailing westward across the Pacific: "All the early explorers pointed out the similarities between the people of New Zealand and the people of British Columbia. The physical types. The similarity in the canoes. The similarity of the maori (statues) and the Northwest totem poles." An example of the extraordinary cedar poles created by the indigenous inhabitants of Bella Coola is shown in the photo 1890. Read More:


Having invented this kind of x-ray vision, it was only natural that they should return again and again to the symbolism of the all-seeing eye. It dominates the whole of the northwest-coast sculpture: Haida, Bella Coola, Nootka or Tlinglet. Before the white man came, every implement these Native peoples used bore the eyes and faces of art. Their weapons, blankets, dance rattles, harpoons, dishes, dream catchers, or spirit bottles. The forms and patterns are capable of being adapted to innumerable practical and impractical shapes. A totem design may be magnified to cover the side of a house; it can be bent around corners to decorate the four sides of a storage box; can be woven into a robe or hammered into the handle of a knife.

---I think that when Newman wrote The Ideographic Picture he hit upon the idea that difference between most western art and tribal art is the difference between the objective and subjective experiences. In 1947, he is trying to use objective means to create a subjective experience. Newman was not alone in thinking along these lines. In the early forties, Rothko was also working along the same lines with his water colors based on the Greek tragedies and Pollock with his supernatural creatures in his paintings of the early to mid forties. It was only after these artist's matured, they found ways to use subjective means to convey or allow for a subjective experience. They were working on a way to have to the subject of the painting be inseparable from the experience of the painting.--- Read More:

Since the designs all told their stories, the tools they ornamented became charged with symbolic meaning. While it lasted, it must have been a society in which, strange as it may sound to us, everything had style. The high point of this organic art was the totem pole, the life affirming figure that proclaimed man’s place in the landscape. Erected with great effort and potlach ceremonial, these artificial trees staked out his territory among the living cedars. They spelled out the owner’s lineage, like a European coat of arms, or served as an “aide memoire” to the storyteller. Most of these stories involved the various animals from whom the owners were symbolically descended, like the one about the raven and the grizzly bear going fishing:

---The raven character is especially central to the oral tradition of the First Nations in British Columbia. Depicted as both a creator and a trickster, Raven's exploits are told in hundreds of stories from the Tsimshian, Haida, Heiltsuk, Tlingit, Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl), and other indigenous nations.--- Read More:

…Now Raven started off with the piece of salmon belly and came to a place where Bear and his wife lived. He entered and said, “My aunt’s son, is this you?” The piece of salmon he had b

d behind a little point. Then Bear told him to sit down and said, ” I will roast some dry salmon for you.” So he began to roast it. After it was done, he set a dish close to the fire and slit the back of his hands with a knife so as to let grease run out for Raven to eat on his salmon. After he had fixed the salmon, he cut a piece of flesh out from in front of his thighs and put it into the dish. That is why bears are not fat in that place….

---"The oldest carved poles are undoubtedly shaman grave posts, some of which are late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. They portray primarily human figures, whereas the monumental poles standing in the villages display crests and supernatural beings from mythology." Gordon Miller's painting is based on archival photos of Skidegate c. 1860. Available in French. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Read More:

…Now Raven wanted to give a dinner to Bear in return, so he, too, took out a piece of fish, roasted it, set out the dish Bear had used, dose to the fire and slit up the back of his hand, thinking that grease would run out of it. But instead nothing but white bubbles came forth. Although he knew he could not do it, he tried in every way.

Then Raven asked Bear, “Do you know of any halibut fishing ground out here?” He said “No.” Raven said, “Why! what is the use of staying here by this salt water, if you do not know of any fishing ground? I know a good fishing ground right out here called Just on-the-edge-of-kelp (Gi’ck!icuwanyi’). There are always halibut swimming there, mouth up, ready for the hook.”…

---The talking stick held by the Chieftain figure in 'The Spirit of Haida Gwaii' is modeled after an actual talking stick found in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian talking stick measures 82 cm or 32". We understand the talking stick in question is currently in storage at the Smithsonian. The talking stick was purchased by a collector at Massett in 1883. Massett is an ancient village on the North End of Haida Gwaii. The Smithsonian Institution talking stick thought to be have been owned by Xana, from the Masset area of the late 19th century. There are no records to determine the theory that this is Xana's talking stick, though Xana's memorial totem pole matches exactly the figures seen on the upper part of talking stick in the collection at the Smithsonian Institution. It is these upper figures which are featured in the talking stick held by the chieftain figure in 'The Spirit of Haida Gwaii' by Bill Reid, and the same figures featured in this commissioned talking stick, by Don Yeomans. The talking stick is said to tell of the story of creation, among the Haida people. "The details of the featured figures in the talking stick are the Raven with human hands, and the Ttsaamuus or Snag in the form of a Seabear (Grizzly with finned arms and a killer whale's tail) The young Raven is emerging from the Snag's mouth"--- Read More:

…By and by Raven got the piece of fish he had hidden behind the point and went out to the bank in company with Bear and Cormorant. Cormorant sat in the bow, Bear in the middle, and, because he knew where the fishing ground was, Raven steered. When they arrived Raven stopped the canoe all at once. He said to them, ” Do you see that mountain, Was!e’ti-ca? When you sight that mountain, that is where you want to fish.” After this Raven began to fill the canoe with halibut. So Bear asked him, “What do you use for bait anyhow, my friend?” Raven answered, “I’ll use the skin covering the testicles as bait.” The bear asked, “Is it alright to use mine?” But the raven said, ” I don’t want to do it, for they might be too wasted.” Soon the bear was urging it strongly, “Cut them off!” So the Raven, sharpening a short knife, said, “Place them on the seat.” Then the Raven cut them off, so that the Bear, crying out, fell from the boat and, dying, spilled into the waves with one last sigh.Read More: aaa

---Transforming from the creator of the world in one story to a mischievous and gluttonous trickster in the next, Raven is as likely to help as to cause havoc. The oral stories helped fill the long, cold winters, and they also were incorporated into dance and ceremony. One way was through transformation masks: large mechanical pieces that reveal and hide a carved human face under an animal. Raven is often described as a shape shifter, and the dancers are able to change from bird to human and back again by opening and closing the mask, transforming at key points in the story.--- Read More:


All the participants in such a tale, including the cormorant who assists Raven and the halibut they catch, will be shown as interlocking figures on the pole. Today, of course, there is likely no one left alive who can remember the tales, and the few remaining carvers have probably lost the art of interpreting them.

Fallen totem pole in Kwakiutl cemetery. Read More:

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