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IV How to Read a Totempole

It is a common belief that the grotesque, interlocked figures on a totempole constitute an esoteric symbolism revealing secrets only to certain initiated tribesmen sworn never to reveal their meaning to outsiders. Some even suspected in them a primitive picture-writing akin to that of the early Mayas, Egyptians and Chinese. Much of this was due to the air of mystery that has always surrounded totempoles due to the local ignorance of both the natives and white residents, as well as the reluctance of the former to talk freely with strangers.

Actually there is nothing "hidden" in totempoles that cannot be revealed with patience and study and totempoles cannot be "read" in the strict sense of the word. Totempoles are not read, but "recognized." They contain nothing more or less than a system of memory devices which, taken in their proper sequence, will recall a story, if one already knows it. This, of course, applies only to totempoles containing a story, for not all of them do. Early mortuary poles often had a single figure carved or placed at the top of a bare pole. This figure might represent the phratry symbol of the deceased or it might be simply his most important clan symbol. In case the chief had several they might all appear, the most important being at the top. One well versed in the history of this man or his sept might "read" the pole by simply reciting the stories attendant to the acquisition of each of these symbols.

Most of the stories carved on totempoles are taken from the general mythology of the tribe, principal among them being the exploits of Raven, a culture hero. Others are of mythological heroes or progenitors. If the pole is short, such as an interior house pillar, the story might be recalled by simply carving the principal character in the act which highlights the story. However, if the story is long and has many characters it might be continued from pillar to pillar, occupying all four. In some cases a long story occupied all the space on two exterior poles that were erected simultaneously, side by side. On the other hand, if the story was short and the pole to be carved tall, another story would follow, but there would be nothing to indicate where one story ended and the other began.

There being many versions of a story, it follows that no two poles representing the same myth will be alike in all details. According to the Haidas this was not always the case. There is an old story to the effect that a man once ordered a pole carved in a certain village and then went to another professional totem carver in a distant village and placed an identical order. When the completed poles were placed side by side no one could tell one from the other.

Totempoles are read from the top downward. A Tlingit pole is often surmounted by the principal character in the legend, but not always. Sometimes the pole is topped by the phratry symbol such as the Raven or the Eagle, or even by a clan symbol such as the Killerwhale or Bear. Some Haida Potlatch poles are surmounted by from one to three high-hatted "watchmen" under which will be the symbol of the chief raising the pole. Following this will be the characters and objects figuring in the story, in sequence, and at the bottom the symbol of the wife’s clan or phratry.

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Unpainted model of Thunderbird totempole carved by author in Alaska yellow cedar. (See text for story of this pole.) [Photo by Winter & Pond]

It may readily be seen that in order to read a totempole, one must be well grounded in the mythology of the tribe. Many of these myths have been recorded and published by competent folklorists and ethnologists and are readily obtainable in libraries. But some stories were the private property of individuals and difficult to collect. Where these have been carved on totempoles long standing or now destroyed and recorded only in old photographs and drawings, it is no longer possible to tell what the story was.

Beyond achieving a knowledge of the oral literature of the Totempolar region, one must also acquire a fair knowledge of the art style and symbolism employed by the carvers. This is necessary in order to recognize the characters appearing on the poles for the artists seldom employed realism. Many animals are shown in quasi-human form but with some device or symbol by which they may be identified. Some also appear that have no relation to the stories, being mere space fillers. In fact, the Indian artist so abhorred undecorated spaces that he sometimes repeated a figure to eke out the required length of the pole.

Some knowledge of the religion of the area is required if one would understand totempoles. For instance, they believed all animals had more or less dual personalities hence they would carve Raven sometimes as a man and sometimes as a bird, and still at other times part bird and part man. Killerwhale was sometimes carved with conventionalized realism but at other times the "whale" was simply the "canoe" in which "Killerwhale" rode. "Spirits" were sometimes portrayed as "eyes" and sometimes as complete faces. For instance, the blowhole of the whale might appear as a face with an open mouth, or the joints of any animal or bird as "eyes."

A study of the native religion of the Northwest Coast further reveals the belief which inspired cremation of bodies and the interment in the backs of mortuary poles, and helps to understand that type of pole and why it was discontinued when the Christian religion was introduced.

When one has acquired a knowledge of the local mythology, art and religion there remains only the necessity of gaining a working knowledge of the social and political organization of the various tribes in order to read or rather recognize totempoles. Haida poles must be recognized for what they are, for the stories carved thereon are different from the Tlingit, as are those of the Tsimshian and Kwakiutl. Even the art style differs somewhat but the differences are readily learned.

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Kadishan totempoes after initial restoration by Wrangell citizens in 1926. Pole at left was modeled after a Haida cane presented to Chief Kadishan. [Photo by Author]

A few years ago one could be certain that Tlingit poles would be found only in the territory occupied exclusively by the Tlingits, and Haida poles in Haida territory. However, many have since been taken up and transported to new locations even within the totempolar regions. Sitka, in Tlingit country, now has many fine Haida totems brought there from Howkan and Klinkwan and Tlingit poles brought from Port Chester. There in not a genuine Sitka pole in Sitka, for only mortuary poles were carved there and these have long since disappeared. A fine old Haida pole from Sukkwan stands in Juneau, also in Tlingit country. Several Haida poles from Kasaan have been transported to Ketchikan, a Tlingit town, and at Price Rupert, in Tsimshian territory, may be seen many fine Haida poles brought there from the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Wrangell’s poles are all Tlingit although two show Haida style, and one was actually modeled after a Haida cane. Some of the smaller poles on the main street of Wrangell are Tlingit but were brought there from the West Coast of Prince of Wales Island.

In attempting to "read" a totempole, one should first determine what linguistic group or tribe made it, for this decides among which group of myths one will find the story. Next, he must determine what type of pole it is since this is likely to affect the arrangement of figures carved thereon. With this much accomplished, he now attempts to identify each of the figures on the pole, trying to ascertain which are important and which are merely space fillers. This should be easy since space fillers are never as large as the characters, even though a character is only a mouse, since the mouse would be carved as large as a mink or even larger if associated with other characters that were large. Now one has only to recall a myth of that tribe wherein all of these characters and objects have a part, roughly in the sequence in which they appear on the pole, beginning with the uppermost figure.

Oftentimes, a story will be recalled that fits, but several figures will remain unaccounted for. This might be due to any of several reasons. It might be that a fuller version of the story is carved than the one recorded, or a slightly different version. Or it might be that some of the figures are simply clan or phratry symbols. Again, it is possible that more than one story has been placed on the pole. This is quite often the case if the pole is tall, in which instance the chosen story might not reach. In the event that some of the lesser characters are missing, think no more about it, for many characters and important objects are left off if the space is limited. In carving the story of "Blackface," often only Blackface is shown in the act of rending a sealion apart. Sometimes a raven is added above to show to which phratry he belonged, and sometimes he wears a headdress of braided sealion intestines as a further recognition feature. But whatever else appears or is omitted, everyone knowing the story will recognize the pole, for nothing else remotely resembles it.

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Raven carved on moss-covered memorial (top) demonstrates dual personality; head and wings are raven-like, body is human in form. Totem in Wrangell cemetery. Lower picture shows totems of old Sukkwan, marking site of deserted Haida village soon to be reclaimed by advancing spruce forest. [Photos by Author]

Totempoles are like the illustrations from books. If the book is familiar to one, a well-known illustration from it will recall its name or context. But a sequence of well-chosen illustrations will recall a book only vaguely remembered. This method of arranging memory devices in sequence and carving them on cedar poles was the nearest approach the natives of the Northwest Coast ever made towards writing.

In the chapters to follow, enough of the information required to enable one to identify many totempoles is given and a few of the better known totempoles will be "read."

<<Chapter III<<