Polar distortion

Growing up in the electric-blanket warmth of Los Angeles County, my only link to my cool, crisp birthplace was a small piece of tourist bric-a-brac, a plastic totem pole. After my birth on Vancouver Island, B.C., my family slowly migrated south until they reached Disneyland. As my mother and I moved from one single-bedroom apartment to the next we packed and unpacked our Canadian souvenirs, including the beaver totem. Its ears popped up like a typical Disney forest character, yet its prominent teeth and hard curved lines looked more like a video game gremlin. The beaver totem has always been with me as a reminder of where I came from and the mysterious Pacific Northwest.

Since my move to the radical and lovable City of Portland I’ve visited the permanent “Grande Ronde Center for Native American Art” exhibit deep inside the Portland Art Museum a couple times. The sheer antiquity and raw appeal of an original perspective on Pacific Northwestern landscape and life itself is deeply magnetic. Artwork like the Tlingit frog hat hits my mind’s eye hard and spins my mental Rolodex recklessly. There is no influence or reference point for Native American artwork. Nineteenth century European landscape painters and modern Japanese pop artists are all anchored in work that came before their “unique” artwork was created. Native American artwork from the Totem Polar region, however, hasn’t any stylistic influences. Totem poles are pure representations of how the first people saw life on Earth.

There were some unavoidable influences as Euro-American traders arrived in the region looking to get rich quick. The otter pelt trade permanently changed the lives of tribes such as the Haidas living on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Imported steel chisels and abundant wealth caused totem pole construction to increase dramatically. Yet at the height of totem pole production, immigrant epidemics struck. Smallpox left only 600 Haidas from a population of 9,000 or 10,000. Whole Tlingit villages were utterly wiped out. However, the totem poles remained as a reference point for all as the Pacific Northwest became repopulated and native tribes recuperated.

All Totem Polar artwork begins as a useful object. A potlatch ladle, a storage box or any religious ceremonial tool is adorned with crazy, distorted images. Because the artists have to apply their ideas to existing objects they have to deconstruct the images in their minds then reconstruct them onto, or into, the object. For example, if you imagine all the visual characteristics of a raven separately – wings, beak, eyes, etc. – then put all those characteristics together on, say, the handle of a canoe paddle, it’s a totally distorted way of viewing nature. It’s psychedelic!

The Totem Polar tribes had no system of writing, so totem poles were erected to express stories and symbolize powerful steps up the social ladder. Apparently, you are supposed to be able to read totem poles. I can’t do it, but I’ve read a couple books with common stories that the poles relate. A lot of poles explain the origins of traditions, such as salmon taboos or how fire came to the world. One of the most common characters is the raven. He is usually referred to as Yethl and his mischief gets him into many funny situations.

One of my favorite stories about the lovable Yethl is the one in which he tries to sleep with the chief’s beautiful wife. When Yethl opens the box in which she is kept and lifts her up, two small birds that were concealed in her armpits fly up into the sky, informing the chief, who consequently orders the seas to rise and flood the land. Hee hee, that darn Yethl.

Totem poles are much more than touristy. They are the most radical and distorted artistic representations of the natural world. We should be proud and honor the tribes who made totem poles a monumental part of Pacific Northwest identity. The next time you see a plastic totem pole on the thrift store bric-a-brac shelf, check it out – it’s psychedelic.