Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | July 26, 2009

North Coast Indian Woodcarving, A Background and discussion of Totem Poles

North Coast Indian art is a huge interest to wood carvers located in the Pacific Northwest, Southeast Alaska, and British Columbia.  I feel fortunate to live so close to its influence.  There are, basically, 6 styles of wood carved art which have each arisen from specific cultural influences.  They are, from North to South Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakiutl, West Coast or Nootka, and Coast Salish.  The most well know North Coast carved art form is the totem pole.  But in addition to the totem poles there are also masks, house posts, bowls, tools, and virtually anything else that was made from wood.  Although there are enormous similarities in the various traditions, the Haida seems to be the bench mark and it is my personal favorite style.

Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid

Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid

The above is a masterpiece done by the late and very great Bill Reid and assisted by Robert Davidson and others.  The piece was completed in early 1980 and unveiled at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Museum of Anthropology on April 1, 1980.

The subject of North Coast Indian Art is enormous and I will attempt here to only present the basics and in later columns I will discuss in greater detail, a couple of the traditions, individuals that have contributed so much to the art, noteworthy artists, museums and exhibits, and tools.

Many persons refer to North Coast Art as “primitive.”  While the art may have been founded by the aboriginal peoples of the North Coast, I find the art to be anything but primitive.  True, most North Coast Art is representative of myth and legend however, the art is balanced with impeccably clean lines.  As a wood carver, I find North Coast carving to be as challenging and as rewarding as any other subject matter.

As I mentioned, the art form was founded by the original aboriginals of the North Coast.  And while it was celebrated in museums and exhibits, each exhibit was originally from a historical prospective.  Fifty years ago, there were few remaining notable artists.  When I first took an interest in North Coast Art, I was living in Seattle and the 1962 Seattle Worlds Fair, Century 21, featured a major exhibit.  However, it was a dying art. The governments of Canada and the U.S. along with the Catholic Church did everything in their powers to end North Coast Indian tradition and sadly enough, that included its art.

Just when the art form was dying out in practice, two notable individuals surfaced.  The first was Washington=s Bill Holm who wrote Northwest Coast Indian Art in 1965 which analyzed the art.  Holm named previously un-named aspects of the art such as the “Ovoid” which is a standard term used today.  Holm, went on to establish a highly regarded North Coast section to the Burke Memorial Museum at the University of Washington.  The second individual was Bill Reid, a former Vancouver disk jockey, turned artist.  Reid was 1/2 Haida and an incredibly gifted artist.  Almost single handedly, Reid re-introduced the art form to the aboriginals of British Columbia and Alaska.  One of his students was a young Robert Davidson, probably the greatest North Coast artist living today.

Lets talk briefly about the 6 cultural influences.  The one closest to home is the Coast Salish.  The Coast Salish encompass the Southwest British Columbia and east coast of Vancouver Island down into Washington State (excluding the northwest Olympic Peninsula).  The Co-Salish, as they are referred to, were not totem pole carvers and only one mask was carved.  They did carve sleek canoes, grave markers, house posts, and animal figures.  They were also known for their implements such as combs and bowls.  Today, many Co-Salish artists are producing totems and masks.

Next up are the West Coast or Nootka as they are also called.  Nootka art is characteristically squared or rectangular.  The Nootka were/are primarily painters and use colorful pigments in their work.  Their carvings are generally wood cut representations of the prints.  Although carvings are common, they are not known for carving.

North of Vancouver and including the north tip of Vancouver Island are found the Kwakiutl.  The Kwakiutl are carvers and are know for their flamboyant totems and masks.  Kwakiutl carvings tend to have a strong, bold look with deep cut areas and often have attachments such as beaks and wings, all with vivid colors.  The late great carver, Willie Seaweed was a Kwakiutl.

Kwakiutl Totem Figure

Kwakiutl Totem Figure

Modern Tsimshian art seems to center in the work of the >Ksan.  >Ksan art is highly refined with a modernist movement.  I am unsure of the history of Tsimshian art but its modern version portrays vigorous motion.

Located in the islands just south of Alaska and touching the Southeast of Alaska is the Haida.  I think it is safe to say that the Haida present the “classic” form of North Coast art.  They produced monumental works.  In Haida art, the ovoids follow classic proportions and include free flowing form lines to create a balanced clean look.  Even in asymmetrical works, the design is balanced.  I find that my North Coast work naturally follows most closely to the Haida.  Not long ago, I wrote about Dudley Carter a Caucasian carver with his own unique style that grew up in the Queen Charlotte Island among the Haida.

Haida Totem

Haida Totem

Very similar to the Haida and just north of the Haida is the Tlingit of the Alaska southeast.  Most people, me included, can not identify the differences between Tlingit art and Haida art.  The Tlingit are most known for the community housing and wonderfully carved house posts.

Tlingit Totem and Community House

Tlingit Totem and Community House

So, actually, what is a totem pole?  The totem pole is a document in cedar.  Contrary to popular belief, totems have no religious significance and are not pagan gods or demons.  A totem’s significance was purely social.

The Pole or post carved and painted with “Totems” was often erected in front of the house of its owner within the aboriginal tribes of the North Coast.  Dictionaries tell us that Totems are often animals or other natural objects taken by aboriginals as a symbol.  Christianity, through over zealous and under-informed missionaries, believed the totem poles were pagan idols and sought to abolish new carving and caused many of the existing poles to be destroyed.  Its not surprising to learn that the governments of Canada and the U.S. initially supported that movement.

Duane Pasco Totem

Duane Pasco Totem

The above Pole was created by the great Duane Pasco, one of a very few truly gifted Caucasian artists specializing in North Coast Art.  It is located at Disney World in Florida, USA.

My wife keeps my reminded that I have several quirks.  I am sure she is correct and one of them is that I believe the term “totem pole” properly applies to North Coast Indians.  After all, they are the ones that started it all.  I also believe if one is going to carve a totem pole it should be authentic to the North Coast Indian tradition and art form.  I have seen books on carving totem poles where the totems more resemble the cartoon characters Heckle and Jekyll than the beautiful art of the North Coast Indians.  The authors should be embarrassed.  There!  I got that off my chest.

When early explorers visited Alaska and British Columbia, they wrote descriptions of the villages and natives, but inasmuch as the majority of the explorers did not venture into the inland wilderness or inland waters, very few writers chronicled totem poles, leading to a superficial impression that most totems were carved in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s century.  However, in fact as early as 1790, totem poles were mentioned in the writings of Captain George Vancouver and others.

Totem poles stand up to 80 feet high with figures of animals, birds, whales, fish, and many were painted with mineral paints created with age-old methods.  In coloring, ochre furnished various shades of red, brown, and yellow; copper impregnated clay produced a bluish green; manganese derivatives and graphite provided black; and baked clam shells and burned limestone provide white when it was used.

The various symbols were the exclusive property marks of clans and families, and often immortalized heroes who contributed either wisdom or bravery to other tribal member’s lives.  The symbols were jealously guarded and proudly displayed on family property such as canoes, houses, clothing, and household possessions.

UBC Totem House Enterence

UBC Totem House Enterence

There are six general types of totem poles:

Heraldic Pole.  Proclaimed social standing of the chief or the head of the house.  It displayed the family crest(s).

Memorial Pole.  Generally erected, in memory, for a deceased chief.

Shame Pole.  Erected by a chief to discredit or ridicule a rival chief for having broken his word or acted in a dishonorable manner.

Potlatch Pole.  Erected for the great potlatch feasts.  These were the tallest poles and were erected to display wealth and power over other chiefs and families.

Mortuary Poles.  Used to deposit a coffin or a crypt of ashes of the departed.

House Pillar or Pole.  Pillars or posts inside houses displaying the crest(s) of the house owner.

UBC Totems and Houses

UBC Totems and Houses

The totem pole carver of yesteryear was part of a select group of carvers who had trained formally in an apprenticeship program.  A young carver was allowed to carry on the art by himself only after he was considered qualified by his master.  The totem pole carver was a specialist who was commissioned by a tribe when a large totem, house post, or other pole was needed.  The desired symbols, the size, and the lineage story were related to him in full detail and only then would he design the pole.  When the carving began, the master’s apprentices would rough out the main form but the details were always created by the master, himself.  For his work, the Totem carver received large fees and were often made wealthy.

By the way, totem poles are unique to the North Coast aboriginals.  They were not carved or used by tribes elsewhere in the U.S. or Canada.  If you are old enough, you might remember early “cowboy and Indian” movies or comics where a plains Indian tribe displayed a totem.  Those totems placed with Plains Indians was as silly and fictional as the rest of the story usually was.

My personal favorite subjects for inclusion on a totem pole include the Eagle, Raven, Sun (or Moon), and Bear as illustrated on the totem below.

Totem by Michael Keller

Totem by Michael Keller

Hands down, the greatest display of North Coast art is found at the University of British Columbia, Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, B.C.  Other wonderful displays include the British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria, B.C., and the University of Washington’s Burke Memorial Museum in Seattle.   In the last few years, many Indian owned casinos located on the West Coast of Washington State have incorporated wonderful examples of North Coast Art in their decor.  One prime example is the Tulalip Tribes Casino and Hotel located in Marysville, Washington.  All of these are truly inspirational.

In future columns, I intend on highlighting a few great North Coast Artists and their work.  Until then…

Stay sharp and happy carving and above all be carveful.

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