The totem pole on Forest Hill


hm-totem-poleOn 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.


pr pole

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.



A Navajo sandpainting in South London


On a recent visit to South London I visited the Horniman Museum and was excited to find a Navajo sand-painting in the main foyer.  I have a longstanding interest in the culture, art, history and language of the Dine (the Navajo) so I was particularity thrilled to discover this large example of their art.  I own a few very small sand-paintings of my own, but they are partial representations of only a few figures.  This was an authentic, full scale example of the form. The particular design at the Horniman is called Whirling log and was made at the museum by Navajo singer Fred Stevens in 1966.  This design was deliberately left incomplete so that it has no religious power or significance.

In 2004, after ten years in storage, the painting underwent extensive conservation and was restored to prominent display.  It is made from powdered sandstone, root and charcoal and is nearly six feet square, so it is a very impressive and striking.  It is an excellent example of Navajo iconography and of their complex religious and ceremonial ideas and practices.  The paintings represent elements from the creation myths of the people and are employed by healers to help restore hozho- that is, good balance, harmony and order.

Sand-paintings are iikaah- ‘places where the gods come and go.’  Once the healer (hataali) has diagnosed the cause of the patient’s malady, the aim is to summon supernatural forces to help restore hozho.  The Navajo universe is composed of good and evil elements, of aspects that are under control and those that are not.  The purpose of hozho is to bridge the gap between the two and to re-establish an equilibrium.

The root of much illness is seen as  psychological and the healing chants, which involve, as well as the sand-paintings, long recitations over two, five or even nine nights and various other ritual practices, are aimed at enabling the sufferer to ‘walk in beauty’ again. The patient will sit on the sand-painting facing east and the Holy People summoned by the images in the particular painting being used will arrive to view the representations of themselves. In so doing they infuse the picture with their healing power.  This is then transferred manually to the sick person, who temporarily is united with the supernatural.


As the images are used in traditional religious ceremonies, the displayed picture is not actually complete: this means that it is suitable to be used for permanent display.  Usually the pictures are destroyed as soon as they have been used in a healing ceremony.  Normally it would have been swept away at the end of the ceremony and dumped to the north of the patient’s home, blocking the return of the evil in the future.

The whirling log (tsil’ol-ni) story occurs in two of the Navajo’s healing chants (Night way and Feather way).  The hero of the story, Self teacher, sets out on a long journey after he falls out with his family over gambling losses.  At first the gods try to dissuade him from going, but once they see that he is determined, they help him hollow out a log to float downstream along the river.  He sets off with his pet turkey and has various adventures on the way, such as being captured by the Water Monster and carried to the home of the Water People.  Self teacher is only released after one of the gods threatens to burn down Water Monster’s house. All the same, during his captivity Self teacher acquires ceremonial knowledge, such as how to cure the illnesses caused by the Water People.  When he finally arrives at the lake that is his destination, the gods help the hero ashore by catching and holding his spinning log.

The final surprise comes when Self teacher is reunited with his pet turkey, which shakes its wings, releasing the seeds put there by the gods. Self teacher then plants a field of crops that quickly ripen for harvest. He returns home to share the knowledge of farming that he has gained and the cures that he has learned from Frog.

Whirling log represents a lake in the centre with logs floating to the shore, pointing north, south, east and west (the sacred directions in Navajo cosmography). Male and female deities (yei) stand on the logs holding evergreen branches and with ribbons hanging from their elbows.  Radiating are the four sacred plants (white corn, yellow pumpkin, grey bean, and black tobacco) brought as gifts.  Around the logs stand the four gods who assist the hero- Talking god, Hastye-o-gahn and two Biighaa’ask’idii  (with the hump shaped deerskin bag on his back and the weasel medicine bag in his hand).  All these deities are male and so are depicted with round heads; they wear mountain sheep horns on their heads.  They are enclosed and protected by a female deity, Rainbow girl.  The picture is open to the east, from which direction it is hard for evil to enter according to Navajo belief.

Here is an excerpt from the Navajo Night chant:

“House made of dawn.
House made of evening light.
House made of the dark cloud.
House made of male rain.
House made of dark mist.
House made of female rain.
House made of pollen.
House made of grasshoppers.

Dark cloud is at the door.
The trail out of it is dark cloud.
The zigzag lightning stands high upon it.
An offering I make.
Restore my feet for me.
Restore my legs for me.
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
Restore my voice for me.
This very day take out your spell for me.

Happily I recover.
Happily my interior becomes cool.
Happily I go forth.
My interior feeling cool, may I walk.
No longer sore, may I walk.
Impervious to pain, may I walk.
With lively feelings may I walk.
As it used to be long ago, may I walk.

Happily may I walk.
Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant showers, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant plants, may I walk.
Happily on a trail of pollen, may I walk.
Happily may I walk.
Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.
In beauty it is finished.”

The Horniman museum also has a display of world musical instruments, showing in particular how the classical instruments of the West evolved.  Although I learned the flute at school and play the guitar, this room was a bit dull for me: it is just racks of oboes and bassoons, really.  There’s also a display of stuffed animals, which passes a few entertaining moments.  The ethnographic gallery was shut’ til next year sadly.  We visited on a Saturday- the place was overrun with small children, as it probably always is.  I’ll visit again in 2018 on a weekday, I think (!).  There’s a park outside which, as the site is at the crest of the Dulwich Hills, has stunning views north and west over central London. The fantastic panorama alone might justify the visit.

I have been interested in linguistics and the Native American languages in particular for several decades.  For fuller details and links see my website.

Lastly I must mention that this trip began in Peckham with a visit to Persepolis cafe, the very excellent Iranian restaurant and shop run by cookery writer Sally Butcher.  It’s highly recommended as a place to eat; if you like the cuisine, have a look at her books Persepolis and Veggiestan (amongst others).