On my recent visit to the Horniman Museum, I was delighted to see a totem pole facing the main road outside the building. For decades I have admired the art of many of the Native American peoples but, living in Britain, have largely had to rely upon pictures in books and online, as well as the odd museum exhibit. House posts and the like in particular are rare (given their size) so it was good to be able to examine one up close.
This particular pole was carved by Nathan Jackson, a Tlingit from Alaska, in summer 1985. It’s twenty feet high and made of red cedar. At the very top is an eagle, Nathan Jackson’s main clan crest; below that are a girl with a bag and a grizzly bear, illustrating a North West coast legend. The bear is identifiable by his short snout, open mouth and small ears. Often they are shown with their tongues sticking out, but not in this case.
So-called ‘totem poles’ are amongst the most impressive examples of native American art, because of their size, striking imagery and bold colours. Luckily there are a few others in the UK that can also be studied in person.
Although these sculptures are conventionally known as ‘totem’ poles this is a misnomer. A totem is, strictly, an animal spirit guide of an individual person and it will be associated with a number of special taboos for that person. The preferred term for this Northwest Coast art now is crest poles. Northwest Coast society was extremely hierarchical and concerned with status. Each family fiercely protected its position and its property. The symbols shown on the poles represented valuable property; the family displaying them had to have a legal right to do so and the erection of a pole partly advertised these rights. The symbols referred to episodes in the lineage or clan history or to the myths and stories of the tribe. Culture heroes and ancestors are therefore represented in the carvings.
The poles were used for heraldic and for mortuary purposes. They were raised to commemorate important mythical, historical or family events and to assert social links and status. For example, the defeat or humiliation of a rival might be recorded in a monumental pole for all to see. Five different purposes for poles have been identified:
- memorial poles for deceased tribal leaders;
- house poles that formed structural elements in timber houses and also bore family crests;
- mortuary poles, that were both memorials for the dead and their tombs- the dead person would be placed in a hollow at the rear of the pole or in a box at the top;
- freestanding heraldic poles that were erected separate from houses announcing their social messages of rights and status; and,
- house portals– very large poles would be attached to the front of a house, incorporating an entrance hollowed through them.
Other poles that can be seen in Britain include:
- two Haida poles dating from about 1850 at the British Museum in the central court. The Kayung totem pole is 12 metres (39 ft) high and was carved and originally located in the village of Kayung , Graham Island, in British Columbia, Canada. Kayung had been an important village for the Haida before European contact. After the population was decimated by successive smallpox epidemics in the late 1800s, Henry Wiah, the town chief, encouraged the remaining population to move to nearby Masset and the village was slowly abandoned. Weathering on the pole means that there is no remaining paint on the surface, but the explanation of what the carvings represented is available. The second pole was almost identical to the first one. The figure at the top represents yetl, and the design also incorporates Haida crests. The story carved into the pole, which involves a man who tricks his wicked mother-in-law.
- a pole by the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted. This pole may seem unexpected in Berkhamsted, so far from where it originated in British Columbia. It was commissioned by a director of the J Alsford Ltd, timber merchants and importers in 1968 and stands on the site of one of the company’s wood-yards, now the gardens of some flats. The red cedar wood pole was carved and designed by the Kwaguilth (Kwakiutl) artist Chief Henry Hunt. This pole possible depicts how the Raven brought light to the world. The figures shown on the pole are:Bottom: Sisiutl- a mythical two-headed sea serpent. He is a source of good fortune and a protector and as such is often depicted on house fronts;Hawkman Sun- can easily be identified by the rays protruding from his face. The figure is the essence of light;Top- Raven- who is many things, including the creator and also known as the trickster. He is a powerful figure who brought light to the world.
- at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. This Haida totem pole is from Star House in Massett village on the Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada. It is carved from red cedar and is 11.36m high. The house was built around 1882 and belonged to chief Anetlas (c.1816 – 1893). The pole was originally raised at a ‘potlatch’ marking Anetlas’ adoption of a young girl. A potlatch is a ceremony held by peoples of the Northwest Coast at which a person is given traditional family rights; it involves reciting family lineages and rights in front of witnesses from other families. The guests are given gifts and a feast, and their acceptance of these marks their agreement to uphold the rights transferred to the person in that potlatch. The figures depicted on this pole include: a bear holding a man.; three seated figures or watchmen- these figures are typical of Haida poles. They sit with their knees up at the top of the pole providing supernatural protection. Their hats are composed of rings marking previous potlatches; bear with a frog in its mouth and a bear cub between its legs; bear holding a human with two bear cubs at its feet; and, raven with a human between its wings- raven is identifiable by its long beak and its wings at its side.
As will be seen, three separate tribes’work are represented in Britain. There are stylistic differences between them:
- Haida– they are renowned for the number and scale of their poles. Their work tends to emphasise the animal characters to the exclusion of people. A wide range of creatures are used;
- Tlingit– their poles are smaller, seldom over 30′ high. They tend to be memorial or mortuary poles and are often very simple with a single bird or animals;
- Kwakiutl– these are often the most colourful and animated of poles.
I have been interested in linguistics and Native American languages for many years: see my website for full details.
I will also mention that this trip was preceded by lunch at Persepolis cafe in Peckham. Chef and food writer Sally Butcher runs this tiny shop and restaurant; if you overlook the cheery chaos of the heaped up shelves and the dire need for a refurbishment (I loved the ceiling held up with sellotape) you will enjoy excellent vegetarian Persian food.