SchoolArts Room

Alaska Stories: December SchoolArts

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Nov 9, 2010

Until I went to Alaska this past summer, I hadn’t given much thought to totem poles.

My only personal encounter with them before that was at my high school in Shreveport, Louisiana. Our school mascot was (and still is) an “Indian” and I remember days in which there were totem poles and teepees all over the front lawn. Even way back then I knew that Louisiana Indians 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, the foremost totem pole carver today. Everyone had the same question, “What story did 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 they were.
Totem poles are tree trunks carved into abstracted figures or emblems by Pacific Northwest Coast Native Peoples. Usually carved into Western red cedar, they honor a person or event, serve as welcoming beachfront house posts that relate family history, function as grave markers, or ridicule an individual or family.
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; as a result, many were destroyed. Nowadays, many totems are commissioned and may cost as much as $1,500.00 a 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.