Until I went to Alaska this past summer, I
hadn’t given much thought to totem poles. My
only personal encounter with them before my
trip was at my high school in Shreveport, Louisiana. Our school mascot was (and still is) an
“Indian” and I remember days when there were
totem poles and teepees all over the front lawn.
Even way back then, I knew that the Native
American tribes that populated the Louisiana
area never used teepees or totem poles, and that
no Native peoples used the two forms together.
In Alaska at the Saxman Native Village near
Ketchikan, one of the largest totem parks in
the Pacific Northwest, I was able to see many
totems, visit a clan house, participate in a dance,
and meet Nathan Jackson, one of the foremost
totem pole carvers today. Everyone in our group
had the same question, “What story does each
totem tell?” We didn’t know the stories, but we
knew, just by looking, that each totem had a
story to tell, and we wanted to know what those
Nancy with a totem at the Saxman Native Village
near Ketchikan, Alaska.
In totems, I learned, the “story” is read from
the top downward. The carved figures are not
read literally, but have symbolic meanings. Early
missionaries misinterpreted them as objects
of worship (unfortunately, an all too common
occurrence); as a result, many were destroyed.
Nowadays, many totems are commissioned and
may cost as much as $1,500 per foot.
To me, experiencing the totems was a
reminder of how we all seek to understand our
lives and the lives of others through stories. As
art teachers, we want to share diverse cultures
and artistic practices with our students, but how
can we share such stories without trivializing
the intentions or copying the style of the originating culture? Can we interpret historic practices through the lens of contemporary culture?
Can we share with our students this challenge
itself? (Think of the rich aesthetic discussions
that could develop.)
Please share with SchoolArts your thoughts
and successes concerning these issues and concerns. Tell us your stories.