Totem Poles as a Spiritual Form of Ethnic Art

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Totem Poles as a Spiritual Form of Ethnic Art

A totem pole is a spiritual for1m of cultural art, capable of transcending its traditional uses and forms and addressing the current social and political concerns of the artist. For hundreds of years the totem pole has played an important cultural, spiritual, and religious role in the Native American nations of the Pacific Northwest. Totem poles carver Jewell Praying Wolf James creates totem poles within his native cultural setting and incorporates many traditional designs. Yet, James recently related his artwork to topics of national (American) concern when he created three pole project constructions to memorialize the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The artist incorporated numerous features of tradition in his design, but also made project choices that reflected his individual spiritual concerns and the desires and wishes of many other Native Americans. I find James’ efforts inspiring, in that he is able to relate his cultural heritage with his national heritage. Also, his ability to create a piece of art that inspires such solidarity within the Native American culture and other cultures is impressive. Ethnic art is the product of an individual embracing their culture and heritage, or reacting to it in a way that reflects their individualism and position in the world. In looking for an example of multicultural art, I was taken with a Native American artist who recently used his traditional art to express feelings, hopes, and wishes that were common to many people around the globe. Jewell Praying Wolf James chose to embrace both his Lummi Native American heritage and his national (American) heritage when he undertook a challenging three-part project to remember the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Though no tribal members or relations of James’ were victims of the attack, James felt connected and reacted to the pain that he, like many people, felt for the victims and their families. He carried out the project as a means of spiritual renewal and healing for himself and others, a cause that motivated him and is truly inspirational. The three-part art project created by James is comprised of five carved poles. Only one pole was intended at first, but the others followed because people, both Native American and otherwise, were moved by the poles’ symbolism. The colors of red, black, white, and yellow used on the poles represent the four races (all races) of humanity that were victims of the terrorist attacks (Jewell, The Healing Pole, par. 1). The first, the Healing Pole, was carved in Oregon in 2002 and placed outside of New York City in the Sterling Forest. As its name implies, the pole is meant to heal the wounds of the terrorist attacks. For this pole, the totems of the bald eagle, the bear, and the bear child were used in the design to represent the fathers who died in the attacks, the mothers who died in the attacks, and the children who were victimized because of the attacks, respectively (James, The Healing Pole, par. 2-4). The second pole, known as the honoring pole, was placed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania in 2003, near the crash site of United Flight 93. It honors the memories of the victims and their actions. The third and final project was constructed of three poles and is now in the Historic Congressional Cemetery. This third project is made up of, “two support poles and one cross pole will be assembled like the foundation beams in a Northwest coastal longhouse” (Briggs par. 7). This purposeful design is based on the tradition that all people within a longhouse are considered to be related. In this way, I believe that it was James’ intention to symbolize that all people are related in the grief following the attacks and the healing process that is still happening. All five poles traveled from the Lummi village site of Semiahmah, Washington, to their respective destinations, stopping along the way to be blessed...
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