Native American Indians:Totem Poles Essay, Research Paper
The Haida, meaning The People, once were numbered at over 10,000. They
occupied the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Colombia. Their numbers were numerous
and their life was prosperous. In 1774 there was the first European contact (Gunn) and
the Haida, unknowingly, let the lion out of its cage, they let white man enter their
territory. The Europeans brought trade, but they also brought colonization. A word the
Indians did not know would cause them such horror. Smallpox and many other epidemics
ravaged the Haida clan and decimated their population to 6,500 (Gunn). The Haida has
gotten to as low as 588 clan members (Gunn), but are now slowly working their way up.
The Haida, along with six other tribes that make up the Northwest Coast Pacific cultural
unit, are known as the ?Totem Pole Carving People? (Gunn).
Totem poles are what we would refer to as monumental art. This definition gives
no justice for the amazing beauty, spirituality, significance, and importance of the totem
pole to the Haida. There were different reasons for designing and erecting totem poles.
The main types of poles were, house posts, house frontal poles, memorial poles, mortuary
poles, grave markers, and welcome figures. The house posts supported the main beams of
a house. The house frontal poles were in the front of the house usually part of the opening
to the house. The memorial poles were there in honor of a person who had died and were
usually erected by the successor of his name (Halpin). The mortuary poles contained the
remains of the dead which were usually in grave boxes incorporated into the pole. Grave
markers were carvings placed where people were buried and usually represented the
person in some way, by family crest or by telling a story. And the welcome figures were
poles placed on the beach welcoming arriving guests that would come by canoe. You can
imagine what the village looked like with all of these large artistic poles everywhere. The
Europeans referred to them as ?grotesque? (Keithahn) when they first encountered them.
Now that people are more educated about the totem poles they are considered an art form
and are very precious items that should be preserved and carried on for future generations
to come and see. Unfortunately the longest lasting totem pole was only 100 years and
many lasted less than 75 (Halpin). All the totem poles that are in their original places are
far beyond repair, lying on the ground rotting away, but many have been saved and put in
museums to marvel at. Saving these poles helps keep a part of native American heritage
alive. Each totem pole is unique in its own way and each has a story of its own to tell.
The stories are particular to the Haida tribe because of the meaning they hold behind them.
Many stories were told to teach lessons, many were told for myths and legends and others
were told from the imagination to amuse a crowd. Many of the same characters are used
in different stories, always keeping their same persona in the plot.
Before the Haida had contact with the Europeans, there was not ?modern? tools to
carve these poles with. The Haida had to make their tools through a long process and
once they were made they were cherished and used often for all types of work. The tools
themselves were a piece of art. Native Americans had to become one with their art, they
had to spiritually accept it and respect it. When carving a totem pole you must go to the
cedar tree and ask for its trunk to carve. Haida, and all other Native Americans, respect
the land and every living thing around them. They only take what they need and never
throw anything away, everything can be useful in some way or another. When they are
carving they are a part of their work, it speaks to them and guides them in their craft.
All totem poles have a story, or a meaning. Haida poles have their own unique
look and can be recognized by their ?pure lines and meticulous attention to basic design
and symbolic convention? (Gunn). Their totem poles usually have a type of family or
tribal crest along with a mythological story that has been carefully crafted into the large
columnar sculpture. Some totem poles are as high as twenty-four meters high, but are on
average between three and eighteen meters high. They are carved on the ground and
when finished are erected to their enormous hight.
To read a Haida totem pole you must understand the symbols and many legends
and myths of the tribe itself. There are so many different symbols that when put together
in the right order tell a story that is understood by all in the Haida tribe. The figures on
the totem poles are not always those of well known everyday life. There are normal
animals that everyone knows about and then there are many ?creatures? mixed in that
represent the ?creative imagination?s of the Haida storytellers who have combined the
fearful elements of the real world with the terrors of the unknown supernatural world to
produce horrible monsters of aspect. These same monsters, translated into masks and
totemic figures by the carvers are equally a mixture of the real and the ?unreal??(Smyly).
One of the better known creatures is the ?sea-grizzly,? which became a crest of the Raven
clan and was widely used. This creature was not always depicted in the same form, some
were of a whales body and a bears head, sometimes they were reversed, and sometimes
both bodies shared a single head. This crest was a combination of two very dangerous
beasts, the killer whale and the grizzly bear (Smyly).
Paint on totem poles was used very sparingly. Colors were difficult to produce
because the Haida had to use their natural resources to get colored pigments. Therefore
the carving was what emphasized the sculpture with its careful grooves and etchings. The
color on totem poles became more prominent when the Haida started trading with the
Europeans. They now had iron tools and real paints that made their work much quicker.
Trading with the Europeans accelerated the making of totem poles. The time process was
not as big of a factor, but the skill and patience was still of great value to the tribe
The Haida were the only tribe known for its argillite totem poles. ?Argillite is a
scarce slate-like stone found at Slatechuck Mountain on Graham Island of the Queen
Charlotte group. The quarry is the exclusive property of the Skidegate tribe and other
Haida carvers need permission to acquire the stone.? The argillite is a dull grey when it is
carved, but is polished to a fine black sheen after the carving is finished. The shine of the
polished argillite really enhances its beauty. The argillite totem poles are not very big and
usually are replicas of a larger cedar version. Most can be held in your hand or picked up.
Argillite will last forever while the cedar poles are very hard to preserve, this makes them
valuable to the Haida because it will help keep their traditions alive.
The Haida totem poles are only a small part of many significant artworks in the
native american religion. They are as important as any type of artwork in the culture and
are respected by all native americans. Native Americans is a very broad term, there are
many different tribes and clans that originated in America and not all of them got along.
There were wars, disputes, intermarriages, potlaches, and ceremonies shared by all of
them. I am concentrating on the Haida because they have the rare argillite totem pole
figures as well as the most common cedar poles. Each tribe has their own certain theme to
the totem poles, but they also usually share a similar meaning.
No matter how hard the rest of the world tries to make Native Americans
disappear they will always remain. The Native Americans have been looked at as
uncivilized and have been shamed for many years. We have tried our best to destroy their
culture and fortunately it is not working. Many rules and regulations are put on the Native
Americans. They can only perform a certain amount of rituals, own certain lands, and
repossess small amounts of their heritage from museums with much paper work. It is
sickening to see how slaughtered they have been both metaphorically and physically. If
their work, ceremonial art, basketry, and everything else used in their daily lives is so rare
and cherished enough to be displayed in museums and sold for outrageously high prices
then why are the Native Americans shunned? We marvel at their art, stories, myths and
legends, little kids fantasize about them, and we can learn so much about the land and life
from them. People understand this yet our government still shys away from giving them
the freedom they supposedly already have. How can it be called freedom when they have
so many extra rules and regulations, specially made for them? People treat them
differently and often unjustly, yet they are the original Americans. Native Americans
should be respected and looked upon for guidance and knowledge. They are the original
law of this land we call America and somehow they are pushed around and forced to
change their way of life because the Europeans decided to colonize. People can not
change what has happened in the past, but we can make the most of the future.
Knowledge is everything and the more people understand about the Native Americans the
more they can come to accept them.