They were conceived to vanish into the earth. The totem poles of the Pacific, from Vancouver island to Alaska, standing on the edge of cedar forests staring out to the sea, were an art that knew how to live, and an art that knows how to die. …
This is an art of faces and eyes that goes far beyond the Greek ideal of the imitation of nature; perhaps something which has hamstrung the European tradition for over two thousand years.Though undeterred by the tyranny, even the most abstract of the totem faces are somehow remarkable alive. Perhaps the head hunting tendencies along the coast had something to do with giving the Indian carvers this superb appreciation of what goes on above the neck.
We know from other parts of the world that hunters are the keenest observers and thus potentially the best artists; certainly there have never been more vivid animal paintings than those of the sorceror hunters of Lascaux.The sculptors of the northwest coast, oddly enough, prized human faces and animal heads but cared nothing at all for the body. At best, they simply dissected it, and they could pass with perfect equanimity, and without a break in line from showing us the outside of a whale; the fins, eyes, mouth and tail; to the inside with a cross-section of the bone structure and a catalogue of the contents of the stomach.
Having invented this kind of x-ray vision, it was only natural that they should return again and again to the symbolism of the all-seeing eye. It dominates the whole of the northwest-coast sculpture: Haida, Bella Coola, Nootka or Tlinglet. Before the white man came, every implement these Native peoples used bore the eyes and faces of art. Their weapons, blankets, dance rattles, harpoons, dishes, dream catchers, or spirit bottles. The forms and patterns are capable of being adapted to innumerable practical and impractical shapes. A totem design may be magnified to cover the side of a house; it can be bent around corners to decorate the four sides of a storage box; can be woven into a robe or hammered into the handle of a knife.
Since the designs all told their stories, the tools they ornamented became charged with symbolic meaning. While it lasted, it must have been a society in which, strange as it may sound to us, everything had style. The high point of this organic art was the totem pole, the life affirming figure that proclaimed man’s place in the landscape. Erected with great effort and potlach ceremonial, these artificial trees staked out his territory among the living cedars. They spelled out the owner’s lineage, like a European coat of arms, or served as an “aide memoire” to the storyteller. Most of these stories involved the various animals from whom the owners were symbolically descended, like the one about the raven and the grizzly bear going fishing:
…Now Raven started off with the piece of salmon belly and came to a place where Bear and his wife lived. He entered and said, “My aunt’s son, is this you?” The piece of salmon he had buried behind a little point. Then Bear told him to sit down and said, ” I will roast some dry sa
for you.” So he began to roast it. After it was done, he set a dish close to the fire and slit the back of his hands with a knife so as to let grease run out for Raven to eat on his salmon. After he had fixed the salmon, he cut a piece of flesh out from in front of his thighs and put it into the dish. That is why bears are not fat in that place….
…Now Raven wanted to give a dinner to Bear in return, so he, too, took out a piece of fish, roasted it, set out the dish Bear had used, dose to the fire and slit up the back of his hand, thinking that grease would run out of it. But instead nothing but white bubbles came forth. Although he knew he could not do it, he tried in every way.
Then Raven asked Bear, “Do you know of any halibut fishing ground out here?” He said “No.” Raven said, “Why! what is the use of staying here by this salt water, if you do not know of any fishing ground? I know a good fishing ground right out here called Just on-the-edge-of-kelp (Gi’ck!icuwanyi’). There are always halibut swimming there, mouth up, ready for the hook.”…
…By and by Raven got the piece of fish he had hidden behind the point and went out to the bank in company with Bear and Cormorant. Cormorant sat in the bow, Bear in the middle, and, because he knew where the fishing ground was, Raven steered. When they arrived Raven stopped the canoe all at once. He said to them, ” Do you see that mountain, Was!e’ti-ca? When you sight that mountain, that is where you want to fish.” After this Raven began to fill the canoe with halibut. So Bear asked him, “What do you use for bait anyhow, my friend?” Raven answered, “I’ll use the skin covering the testicles as bait.” The bear asked, “Is it alright to use mine?” But the raven said, ” I don’t want to do it, for they might be too wasted.” Soon the bear was urging it strongly, “Cut them off!” So the Raven, sharpening a short knife, said, “Place them on the seat.” Then the Raven cut them off, so that the Bear, crying out, fell from the boat and, dying, spilled into the waves with one last sigh.Read More:http://www.indigenouspeople.net/creatlingit.htm aaa
All the participants in such a tale, including the cormorant who assists Raven and the halibut they catch, will be shown as interlocking figures on the pole. Today, of course, there is likely no one left alive who can remember the tales, and the few remaining carvers have probably lost the art of interpreting them.