Totems re­claimed as part of Indige­nous sto­ry­telling

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Totem poles were cre­ated by the Indige­nous peo­ple of North Amer­ica’s Pa­cific North­west as a way to doc­u­ment their his­tory, with each mas­sive carv­ing re­call­ing no­table events and com­mem­o­rat­ing an­ces­tors. But over the years, their story be­came one of com­mer­cial­iza­tion and ap­pro­pri­a­tion.“To­day, totem pole kitsch, plas­tic minia­tures, and totem em­blems are on ev­ery­thing from tea tow­els to wa­ter bot­tles, and from pep­per shak­ers to Play­mo­bil kits, and they can be found in vir­tu­ally every tourist shop in Canada,” John Sut­ton Lutz, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria and the au­thor of “Makúk: A New His­tory of Abo­rig­i­nal-white Re­la­tions,” wrote re­cently in the Tyee, a Cana­dian me­dia pub­li­ca­tion.Such tchotchkes also can be found in the on­line stores of North Amer­ica’s ma­jor sports leagues, some af­fixed with the lo­gos and sym­bols of teams that have taken on In­dian nick­names.The Cleve­land In­di­ans totem pole is topped by Slider, the fran­chise’s long­time mas­cot. Chief Wa­hoo, the team’s logo fea­tur­ing a smil­ing In­dian, is not pic­tured; MLB Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred and team owner Paul Dolan an­nounced ear­lier this year that the team would be re­tir­ing the im­age af­ter this sea­son. All mer­chan­dise with an MLB team logo on it is sub­ject to “ab­so­lute ap­proval” from Ma­jor League Prop­er­ties Inc., ac­cord­ing to a li­cence agree­ment posted on the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion’s web­site.The pro sports totem poles didn’t sit well with Re­becca Thomas, a Mi’kmaq woman and for­mer poet lau­re­ate of Hal­i­fax who re­cently spot­ted some Nhl-themed items at a Law­tons drug­store in the city. Law­tons quickly re­sponded to Thomas via Twit­ter, say­ing it would pull the totem poles from its stores and apol­o­giz­ing.W. Ron Allen is the chair­man of the Jamestown S’klal­lam Tribe in Wash­ing­ton state, which has more than 40 totems on its prop­er­ties. He’s also the trea­surer of the Na­tional Congress of Amer­i­can In­di­ans, which has had a long-stand­ing op­po­si­tion to ath­letic teams with Na­tive Amer­i­can nick­names, lo­gos and sym­bols. He said that, while he had not seen the sports-themed totems, their mere ex­is­tence was prob­lem­atic.“From our per­spec­tive, we’re of­fended by it,” he said. “We have been fight­ing for years to elim­i­nate the use of Amer­i­can In­dian im­ages for the pur­pose of com­mer­cial­iza­tion. That has some­thing that has al­ways been of­fen­sive to us.“We think it’s ab­so­lutely in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” he con­tin­ued. “It’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate for oth­ers to use our im­age, one, with­out our au­thor­ity and two, for think­ing they’re hon­our­ing us when then they’re not.”He added that the fact that there are totems de­voted to teams with In­dian nick­names is “more of­fen­sive, with­out a doubt.”“For the gen­eral pub­lic, who don’t know the cul­tural back­ground, totem poles are a creative, artis­tic way for Na­tive Amer­i­cans to tell sto­ries about their cul­ture and their his­tory,” he said.“They’re in­tended as a way of ar­tic­u­lat­ing his­tory, such as hon­our­ing chiefs, hon­our­ing war­riors, hon­our­ing medicine peo­ple ... So for a com­mer­cial en­tity to mis­use a totem as a cul­tural piece is in­ap­pro­pri­ate, it’s wrong on a lot of dif­fer­ent lev­els. It sends con­fus­ing mixed mes­sages for the gen­eral pub­lic. They might buy it and think, ‘I got some­thing Na­tive and it rep­re­sents my favourite sports team.’”The col­lectibles are made by a com­pany called Ev­er­green En­ter­prises, which has long held li­cens­ing agree­ments with the NHL, NFL, MLB and NCAA.Along with the totem poles, Ev­er­green sells numer­ous prod­ucts that are af­fixed with team lo­gos, in­clud­ing Christ­mas tree or­na­ments, flags, bot­tle open­ers and wine-bot­tle hold­ers. Home De­pot, Fa­nat­ics (which op­er­ates the on­line stores for the ma­jor sports leagues) and Ev­er­green En­ter­prises did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.Ac­cord­ing to Lutz, the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of totem poles into a sym­bol of In­dian life and Cana­dian cul­ture at large be­gan in the early 20th cen­tury, when rail­roads be­gan bring­ing tourists to the First Na­tions tribal ar­eas of Bri­tish Co­lum­bia and south­ern Alaska where the poles stood. Soon the poles be­gan ap­pear­ing in mu­seum ex­hibits in Canada’s eastern cities and else­where around the globe, on postage stamps and on the cov­ers of tourists’ guide­books.At the same time, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment was striv­ing “to erase First Na­tions from Canada,” Lutz writes, via laws that banned tribal cer­e­monies - in­clud­ing the pot­latch cer­e­monies of­ten held when totem poles are raised, which were il­le­gal in Canada from 1885 to 1951 and pre­vented the First Na­tions peo­ple from hir­ing lawyers to re­claim their land.Allen said that he’s not against the gen­eral com­mer­cial­iza­tion of totem poles, per se, but that he would pre­fer such items be crafted by Na­tive artists, con­sid­er­ing their im­por­tance to In­dian cul­ture.“It’s ex­tremely dis­ap­point­ing that they’re even out there,” Allen said.

This totem pole in Stan­ley Park makes a strik­ing im­age set against the moun­tains. There is a move­ment against the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of the Indige­nous carv­ing.

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