Conservation And Native American Beliefs
“The Totem Pole”
Totem poles are one of the world’s greatest monumental expressions of the Northwest Coast Native Americans. Most commonly we think of them as tall, carved, freestanding, outside poles depicting animals stacked one upon another. As a child I had the opportunity to travel to British Columbia and I was mesmerized by the totem poles. I recall tilting my head back as far as I could to take in their immense size, intricate carvings and bold colors but like most I never wondered about the ‘what’, ‘why’ or ‘who’ that led to the creation of such masterpieces.
Given my experience it is no wonder that these beautiful artifacts have been coveted by museums and private collectors for centuries. I have to wonder is that what Native Americans intended when they crafted them? Were they meant to be moved, conserved, displayed and used as tourist attractions without fully understanding their meaning and intention (Mawani 2005)? Seen as a symbol of the Northwest Coast Indian during the late eighteen hundreds it was thought that no anthropological museum was complete without at least one pole so procurement was set as a priority employing the reasoning that those poles that were not sent to museums were at the mercy of natural processes and would rot, fall and be lost forever (Darling, et al., 1980). What museums did not take into consideration was the Native Americans perspective “…objects are created to be used and when those objects are damaged or worn out, they are thrown away and new ones are made. This applies to everything from small masks to large totem poles. For example, many Indian people feel that once a pole has served its purpose it should be allowed to go back into the ground. The objects themselves are not important; what matters is what the objects represent” (Cramner-Webster 1986).
In recent years more attention has been focused on understanding the perspective of the Native American Culture in regards to totem poles, especially by conservators. Instead of approaching the conservation of a totem pole with mere intellect some have turned to understanding the spiritual and ceremonial significance as well (Rhyne 2013).
One such totem pole ‘The Tongass Island Raven’ owned by a Tlingit Tribe was approached for conservation utilizing more than traditional conservation techniques. Recognizing that when a totem pole is originally raised, a great ceremony is held to honor the significance of the totem. The conservator came to understand that it was also important to perform a similar ceremony prior to the restoration. He learned that the purpose of the Raven for the tribe was to link them to their ancestors. Before the conservation was begun a Tlingit elder sang a blessing in their native language to explain the purpose of the intervention (conservation) to the Raven. The Raven was asked to understand that no harm was meant and that the effort to preserve the wood and stabilize the materials was so the Raven could continue to remind the native people of their culture, their symbols and the past (Rhyne 2013).
Pictures Courtesy of the Ketchikan Museum Heritage Center
I was very touched and encouraged when I read the quote from the conservator following the ceremony “For myself as the conservator responsible for the treatment, the experience was a reminder that spirits and ancestors from the past were associated with the Raven and were understood to be involved with my work” (Rhyne 2013).
For me The Raven project signifies respect for not only cultural heritage and conservation but a new beginning. I hope in the future that conservators around the world embrace new approaches like the one described above and experience what I believe was a life changing experience for both the Tlingit and Rhyne.
Rhyne, Charles S. 2013. “Changing approaches to the conservation of Northwest Coast totem poles.” Studies in Conservation 45(Supplement-1): 155-160.
Cranmer-Webster, Gloria. 1986. “Conservation and Cultural Centres: U’Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, Canada,” in Symposium 86: The Care and Preservation of Ethnographic Materials, ed. R. Barclay, M. Gilberg, J.C. McCawley and T. Stone, CCI, Ottawa (1986) 77-79.
Darling, David and Cole, Douglas. 1980. “Totem Pole Restoration on the Skeena, 1925-30: An Early Exercise in Heritage Conservation.” BC Studies 47: 29-48.
Mawani, Renisa. 2005. “From Colonialism to Multiculturalism? Totem Poles, Tourism and National Identity in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.” Social and Legal Studies 14 (3): 315–340.