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X Carving and Erecting the Totempole

Totempoles and all their legitimate relatives on the Northwest Coast are carved of Western red cedar (thuja plicata), all authorities to the contrary notwithstanding. This tree is not to be confused with Alaska yellow cedar (chamaecyparis nootkatensis) together with which it forms about five per cent of the Totemland forests. "Alaska cedar," a more beautiful, harder, denser, true cyprus was used by the natives for "fancy" carving of small articles and can be compared to white pine for that purpose. It is still used for making model totempoles for tourist sale, and is by far the best wood for that purpose. But red cedar was used for the manufacture of canoes, houses and totempoles, it being too soft and splintery for fine work.

Some small art carvings were made also of alder but it was used primarily for food dishes since it imparts no flavor or odor and is durable. Maple was used for rattles and spoons, crabapple for staffs, canes and mallets, these two being the hardest woods in the area. Spruce was used in some districts for house construction but it together with hemlock served principally as fuel. On the Coast drift hemlock was preferred for smoking fish but up the rivers alder and cottonwood supplemented not only for smoking fish but for other purposes as well.

Red cedar does not grow north of 57 degrees N. latitude, running out in the vicinity of Wrangell and Sitka. Yellow cedar is found as far north as Prince William Sound but even at Katalla the totems were made of imported red cedar. At Klukwan on the Chilkat river canoes are made of cottonwood in lieu of cedar and houses of spruce but all of their houseposts are of imported red cedar.

In the Queen Charlotte Islands are found the finest of these gigantic cedars, and there naturally were carved the finest totempoles, the best remaining examples of which have been transported to Prince Rupert and set up there in the city parks.

When the occasion arose among the Haidas for the carving of one of these huge monuments a search was made for a suitable tree as near to the beach as possible. When selected and approved by the chief for whom it was to be carved it was felled, cut to the proper length, trimmed and peeled. Then, the side containing the most knots was hollowed out as if in preparing to make a canoe. This hollowing had a dual purpose. First, it reduced the weight, making it easier to skid down to the beach and lighter when the finished pole was to be erected. But most important, the removal of the heart wood made the pole more resistant to checking, that is, cracking disastrously. The pole, ready for carving, was a half-round shell about ten inches thick.

In this condition the log would be towed to the village and dragged ashore at the place for carving. It now went into the hands of a professional carver and his helpers (or slaves) who adzed it into shape and then marked it into sections of equal length. Thus a thirty-foot pole would contain five sections of six feet length each. The Haidas paid for the carving by the section and often a different carver was employed for each section. For each of these divisions the equivalent of about $50 was paid in blankets.

Photo page 111
Top picture shows native artisans of rehabilitation project at work on large pole at Saxman, near Ketchikan. Lower view shows new totempole being floated to place of erection. Haidas say their inspiration for these quaint monuments came from waterlogged totempole that drifted to their beaches in Queen Charlotte Islands from parts unknown many generations ago. [Top photo by Schallerer, lower by Author]

The carver as an "artist" had little if any personal liberty in his work. He was told exactly what was to be carved on the monument and traditional "Haida style" evolved from the earlier argillite carvings dictated how the highly conventionalized figures had to be carved. Moreover, a committee of inspectors representing the chief for whom the work was being done had to approve each suggested pattern before it was roughed in. Often in the course of carving an important pole, distinguished friends of the chief would be invited to take the adze and make a few token strokes. This was considered a great honor, comparable to laying a cornerstone of a fine public building or driving the last spike of an important railroad.

The principal tools used by the totem carver were an assortment of steel hand adzes patterned after the earlier tool with nephrite bit, and several carvers’ knives with curved blades resembling farriers’ knives but more likely a bloodbrother of the Eskimo’s "mitlik." Then there was an assortment of accessory tools and materials such as chisels, mallets, patterns of hide and birchbark, sharkskin for sanding.

Carving began at the top or upper end over which a portable shelter was sometimes erected to shelter the artisan from inclement weather. As the work progressed down the pole the shelter was moved accordingly. After the pole was adzed down to its contemplated size, general shape and taper, and the sections laid out, patterns for the figures were laid on for the first figure and outlined. Patterns were not used for all parts, freehand drawing serving in their stead. But in the carving of an eye separate patterns were used for the eyeball, the opining, and the bean-shaped carving representing the eye socket. This procedure was necessary that the eyes match exactly. A taut string drawn from the center of the base to the top center kept the figures in proper balance and alignment.

Mandibles, fins, etc. that stood out at right angles to the pole were mortised in. a rectangular aperture was first chiseled out, into which a block of suitable size was driven by maul or mallet. Where gluing was necessary, glue was made by boiling down halibut fins. Carving of the beak or fin was done after mortising in the block, which accounts for the perfect fit made in these operations. Wings were made separately unless folded, and attached with wooden pegs.

Much of the beauty of Northwest Coast carving was due to the "hammer-track" finish put on over the entire surface of the carving. This was accomplished by means of a small adze, not over an inch across the blade which was rounded at the edge and slightly concave. A skillful carver could go over the surface of any totem carving, taking off uniform chips about the size of a dime, achieving a uniformly indented surface similar to that produced on copper by pein-hammering.

The Haida did not hollow interior house pillars since that would weaken them and mortuary poles were often hollowed only in an area large enough to receive the box containing the ashes of the dead. Many of the totempoles were so slender that it was both impractical and unnecessary to hollow or even flatten them at the rear. Others, such as the "Wolf-tail" pole would have lost its realism had it not been "left in the round."

With the exception of their interior house pillars, the Tlingits rarely hollowed their cedar monuments. The smaller ones were left round while others were simply flattened or at most, only slightly hollowed in the back. The interior house-posts were made concave so that they could be cupped against the true house pillar which was not decorated. This feature of the Tlingit house-post was a distinct advantage over that of the Haida, in that the elaborately-carved posts could be spared when the house got beyond repair. In that case the old posts were set up again in the new building. A fine set of four houseposts brought to Wrangell (circa 1840) from Kotslitan and placed in a new community house may still be seen in the recently reconstructed Chief Shakes community house on Shakes Island in Wrangell. Similarly, in Klukwan are some beautiful old house-posts that formerly stood in earlier houses, now decayed or washed away by the ever-meandering Chilkat river.

In most instances painting waited until the entire pole was carved. However, the writer recalls a Kwakiutl carver at Alert Bay who had completed only the uppermost figure of his pole and was in the act of painting it before proceeding with the rest of the carving. It was quite likely he was being paid upon the completion of each figure rather than having to wait for his pay until the entire pole was finished.

As recorded in an earlier chapter, totempoles were originally painted with paints of native manufacture. Those made from mineral pigments derived from carbon, iron and copper were beautiful and enduring. Others made from colored earths soon faded out. White men early provided the natives with quantities of cheap boat paint whereupon the totempoles lost their soft pastel shades and became gaudy and barbarous in appearance.

If it has been sufficiently demonstrated in the preceding chapters that "tall" totempoles are not ancient, in fact, a development occasioned since and undoubtedly by the introduction of steel, then it would be paradoxical to attempt to account for the carving and erection of them by their original primitive means.

How Hawaiians Came To Northwest

Writers have made much of the fact that these monuments were erected in a manner similar to that employed by the Polynesians, implying that these Northwest Coast islands were originally peopled by Hawaiians in a migration such as that of the Samoans to New Zealand, whence sprang the Maoris. However, no such theory is warranted, for the several cultural similarities between the Haida and Hawaiian are easily accounted for by recent acculturation. The record clearly shows that the phenomenal development of art and architecture among the Haidas and Tsimshians closely parallels the activity of Northwest Coast traders and their predominantly Polynesian crews.

The Rev. Jonathan S. Green, missionary from Hawaii, who visited the Northwest Coast in 1829 for the purpose of examining the area as a missionary field, gives an excellent picture of the district lying between Sitka and the Queen Charlotte Islands. On the trader, the bark "Volunteer," Capt. Charles Taylor, out of "Honoruru," "Sandwich Islands" he spent an entire season between Sitka, Kaigani, Tongass, Nass River, Masset and Skidegate, calling at each place repeatedly as the skipper traded for furs.

As early as that, Green wrote, "For more than forty years, our enterprising countrymen have coasted these shores, and realized immense profits from their commercial intercourse with the natives…." In other words, long before the Russians established Sitka (1799) Americans out of Boston and Salem and British as well, were trading in the Alaska Panhandle and Coastal British Columbia and perhaps in every instance coming via Hawaii. Their crews were made up largely of Northwest Coast Indians and Kanakas who intermingled freely, aboard and ashore, and Kanakas married Indian girls and settled down. Even today one can see their shadows in all Coastal Indian tribes but especially in the Haida where some of the girls could pass for Maoris and wavy-haired men resemble full-muscled Samoans and Hawaiians. Barbeau mentions a part Hawaiian totem-carver named Oyai who was regarded as the best carver on the Nass. Just which part of his ancestry contributed the most to his skill is a moot question, for it is possible that the Kanakas learned as much from the Indians as the Indians did from them. Jonathan Green, for one, regarded the culture of the Northwest Coast Indians on a higher plane that in any of the South Sea Islands, including Hawaii and New Zealand.

In thinking of Northwest Coast natives, one should not make the error of believing them to have the character of interior Indians who are likely to be stolid and taciturn and slow to borrow new ideas. On the contrary, these coastal dwellers or more correctly, maritime Indians, particularly the Haidas and Coast Tsimshian, were mentally alert, physically active and exceedingly garrulous. A little insight into the character of these people of that day may be gained from Green’s diary of June 25, 1829. He wrote, "The sun shines from about three a.m. till nearly nine p.m., and yet the days are not sufficiently long for the Indians to do their talking. My patience is exceedingly tried. The Skidegas men exceed all that I have yet seen for keenness in trade. One reason is that their skins are the sea-otter, there being very little land fur on the island. One of these skins is worth more than ten beavers, and being scarce and eagerly sought, the man who has taken one calculates to banter at least two days before he sells it, and during this time he claims special privileges, expects that he shall have free access to the cabin to eat, drink, and lounge, and he must have things in style, too, or he will be highly offended. They make a regular business of bantering—talk till they are weary—take a short nap on deck or in the cabin—after which they will resume the business with renewed vigor. So uniformly do those Indians torment us when they have these skins, that I dread to see one brought over the side of the ship."

The Rev. Mr. Green observed "busts" and "carved masts" at Kaigani during his several visits in 1829. He perhaps did not know that his countrymen, Captain Roberts of the "Jefferson" helped raise a totempole in this same village thirty-five years earlier. Competition between the traders was keen and the Indians made the most of it. On this occasion (1794) the Captain and his crewsmen planed, sanded, painted and erected the totempole at the request of a local chief, the pole being raised with the aid of two spare topmasts and the necessary tackle.

This is not the only instance reported wherein white men and Polynesian assisted in raising totempoles more than a hundred years age. Barbeau recorded such assistance given the Nass natives and calls attention to the fact that the "trench" method of raising a tall totempole is identical with that of south sea islanders.

The "trench" method consists of digging a trench some twenty feet in length, starting shallow and gradually sloping to the other end which will be of the depth at which it is intended to set the pole. The pole is rolled into the trench with the butt in the deep end where it lies at about a thirty degree angle. A short log roller is placed under the upper end and moved forward as a pole is raised by straight lifting, "scissors" and pikes. A plank standing upright in the hole prevents gouging and aids in getting the pole erect. The whole band, men, women and children, complete the job with lines while a foreman on a nearby stump or housetop shouts out the native equivalent of "Yo, heave!" Once erect, the pole is twisted about until it faces the proper direction, that is, the waterfront, then the trench and hole are filled in.

photo p117

Chief Shakes VII, since dead, better known as plain Charley Jones, supervises raising tall totempole on his ancestral island (top). Kake natives, his honored guests, are assisting, at Wrangell Potlatch, 1940. Lower picture, showing old and new, demonstrates amount of rigging required to erect a 65-foot totempole. [Photos by Author]

Block and tackle equipment is used when available, which no doubt means since the advent of white man’s sailing ships. Tall poles are set much shallower than one would expect, often not at a greater depth than four or five feet, due to the presence of bedrock at very shallow depths along these Northern shores.

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