Monday, August 17, 2009

Northwest Totem Story


One of the things I like best about traveling is that you learn so much. On our latest trip to Canada, we learned something new about something old.

Most of you know that my wife grew up in San Francisco, and that her parents owned a cafe and liquor store downtown. It was mom and pop store, with Pat's mom Erma often serving the customers. One of the regular customers for whom Erma would swap food for daily chores was a man named Charlie Brown. Charlie also gave Erma a present that he had carved, and wrote a four-page narrative describing what he had made.

Many years ago, Erma gave the carving to Pat and I. I read the narrative, and it detailed a story which facinated me. Here is a photo of the carving, and the text of his narrative.

"The Oldest Story known the Indian Nation
This totem pole is known as the Sun and Raven Pole. In the dark ages, no one knew there was such a thing as Sun. All the Mystical Raven knew was light, called Day light, there is no possible way of carving light of day, When he did ascent to the sky, he did see the Sun, they did know there was sky. The round about his head is the Sun he did see. If also means sky, also means light of day. In order to understand the carving, it is necessary to interpret all the figure4s you see on the pole. The figures represent people as nations of people, and not the bird or animal itself nor the frog. Symbol of People, not only this carving but all totem. No different than the white man's lodge, only he wears his on his coat. His is adopted, our symbol on the totem pole is something that really happened to a man or a tribal people, or the whole clan, thereby a clan is made. Could be a grizzly bear, eagle, or other bird or fish or animal, it is something that really happened, and not adopted by Roberts Rules of order. So for all totem poles, all the figures we see on white man's coat of arms of moose, elk, eagle and others means the same people not the birds or animals itself.

Unknown to thousands the true meaning. Each figure has a story to tell. Each figure of man means nations of people, Raven figure means Raven Nation, tribe, clan. So as eagle, grizzly bear, killer whale, and such and many more. In the dark age, it seemed our world did not revolve at all. It was as dead as the moon. Raven was then known as the Mystical Raven. He had unknown powers, can change himself to animal, fish, or bird. But was a human or could be animal of the land - a man of Raven tribe, thus the totem pole.

He promised his people there would be light of day. In time to come, this Promise stood for generations and generations. Thus, the Seattle totem pole in Pioneer Square which I myself recarved the original. It was burned badly, and was sent to me in Alaska. I carved to the inch the Seattle Pole represent his Promise full-filled. At the very bottom, the Mystical Raven, and at the very top a Raven holding a box called the light of day box. No one on Earth could carve dy light, so the artist use light in a form of a box, which means day light.

So goes with this Pole thousands and thousands of years ago, when there was no tress, this same story was painted in caves on cliffs. Later, it was on moose hide. The three man figures are the three Nations carved on this Pole, carving of trees is not really too old. But the story is very, very old. Dates back to the dark ages, age unknown, even the whites story mentions it in history as the dark ages only no date. The three Nations, the Saltwater People, the middle Nation, and the upper Nation. The upper Nation stayed inland and are still there. I myself have met some, and three Nations are carved on his breast on this tree.

After painting on cliffs or caves, burned on hide, and carved, the story cannot be changed on this tree or another tree or totwm pole. Neither can you add on or take away any part of the story. Some use copper shield.

I, Charles W. Brown, French Indian of Alaska, is the last that can tell this story unknown to younger generation, and many others 50 in all to have carved or recarved.

I did research for University of Washington, and the Anthropoligist then at the head was Doctor Viola Garfield. At the time of my research, there were not many old people alive then, so my research was limited. The Mystical Raven ascended to the sky and came back with hope for all nations, there will be light - there is light.

The Proof of this Promise stands in Seattle Pioneer Square. It is called the light of day totem Pole, astronaut of millions of years ago, forerunner of todays astronaut, ages not known. The sun is the Raven on top, it really means Sky or the Sun he saw. The three men figures are the three nations that witness the event of that time. The head or face at the back end of the Raven between wings is the man or the Mystical Raven are one that brought hope to the Nations.

Now, the Mystical Raven and the frog. I'll go the Raven first. There ws no man living at the time that can carve water, sea, or lake water or even to this day. So the artist of the time used fish, bird, or animals or of many kinds. In this case, the frog was used as such to represent sea, water, or lake water. It's impossible to carve water (itself can you). The Mystical Raven descended to the deep of the Sea (This was after his Promise was full-filled that is the light of day). The three salmon on each side of his wings mean food for his people,or he may have descended to the Bottom of the Sea to see if there was a hole in the Bottom of the Ocean. Because the Sea was fast giving out, where there was no land , now land appears. Islands were being born, the ocean was going somewhere, the world was now revolving as it is this day. Clam shell are found many miles inland and high. I, Charles W.Brown, have seen clam shells many miles back where once the Bottom of the Ocean. Builders unearth shells many miles inland. It is any bodies guess as to age, the wings has some meaning. Aslo, the Oblong Circle at the base of the wing means the Power of flight. All the rest is my own idea. If the totem is large enough, small faces are carved on the ears (Sense of hearing) In the eyes, senses of sight. Hand sense of touch on feet - Power of motivation. On the nose, sense of smell. So on one large totem pole, the seven senses are ascentuated, the artist own idea of carving the totem pole.

Wood Used
The carving is Alaska Yellow Cedar, and wings are pine. The base Redwood of California. I do hope you understand some or all. Please condense this story if you wish. You will be the only woman in the State of California to hold in your hand what took place thousands of years ago carved. Story by Charles W. Brown."

Years later, I stumbled across a book entitled, "The Wolf and the Raven, Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska" by Viola Garfield and Linn A. Forest, published by the University of Washington Press in 1948. In the preface, Viola writes:

"For many years, the United States Forest Service recognized the necessity of collecting and restoring the totem poles to be found throughout southeastern Alaska if any evidence of this unique art was to be preserved. Not until the fall of 1938, however, were funds available so that work of this nature could be undertaken by the employment in the Civilan Conservation Corps of skilled native carvers.

The poles in Saxman Totem Park, three miles from Ketchikan, were restored by Tlingit natives, many of whom are descendants of the original owners. This group of poles includes carvings from Cape Fox Village, Tongass Village, Village Island, and Pennock Island. Chief Johnson's totem pole in Ketchikan was also restored by carvers at the Saxman workshop. Two new poles symbolic of old Tlingit legends were designed and carved for the totem village at Mud Bight, a few miles north of Ketchikan. A model village wasplanned for the latter site, but the war prevented completion of the project. The poles in the Klawak Totem Park were brought from the deserted town of Tuxekan and vicinity. Some of the men who worked on the restoration project were born in the old town, and all had ancestors who lived there.

Totem-pole carvings cannot be appreciated or understood without a knowledge of the legends and histories back of them. The Regional Forestor of Alaska, B. Frank Heintzleman, was therefore particularly anxious to collect such information. Linn A. Forest, the Regional Architect, was placed in charge of the totem pole restoration project. To him and other Forest Service members were entrusted the selection and removal of the old carvings, the arrangement and erection in new parks, and the securing of the totem stories and photographs. Charles Brown, head carver for the Saxman workshop, in which many of the carvings were restored, also recorded many of the legends and consulted with many of his tribesmen when his own memory or knowledge failed him."

The book contains a chapter on the Saxman Totem Park.
"Saxman, three miles south of Ketchikan,on Tongass Narrows, was chosen as the site for the spectacular collection of Tlingit carvings from abandoned towns and cemeteries of Tongass, Cat, Village, and Pennock Islands and Cape Fox Village. Many of the of the inhabitants of the old towns and their decendants live at Saxman, and the park is in the center of the townsite. The park was laid out with an approaching driveway bordered with poles and a square area walled with hand-adzed logs ornamented with frog heads. Two stairways lead to the square, one flanked by two massive Raven figures and the other by Bear figures. These symbolize the two phratries of the Tlingit. The first pole completed for the project was the Sun and Raven carving, located at the entrance to the park.

The (original) Sun and Raven pole was carved in the fall of 1902, and placed in the cemetery on the north point of Pennock Island facing Ketchikan. It was made by a famous Tlingit carver, Kahctan, more widely known as Nawiski, for a woman of the Starfish House of the Raven phratry, as a memorial to her two sons. It was repaired and set up in its present location April 11, 1939, as the first pole in Saxman Totem Park."

On our recent trip to British Columbia, we revisited both the Uiversity of British Columbia's Anthropology Museum in Vancouver, and the Royal Museum in Victoria. Both have extensive totem collections. On this trip, we discovered that a new online database is being established to allow sharing on information between public and private collections on northwest art (Reciprocal Resource Network Project, Reciprocal Resource Network Pilot Project). At the Royal Museum, we learned that Charles Brown's nephew, Israel Shotridge, has been restoring and producing new versions of his uncle's totems. In addition, he has built an impressive collection of original Tlingit art (Shotridge Studios)

We have established an online collection in the Reciprocal Resource Network, and are beginning the task of uploading photographs and descriptions of our art, including the Sun and Raven Pole Model. We have also contacted Israel Shotridge to let him know about the piece, and to see what more we can learn together about his uncle.

We are proud to have been a small part of the life of this incredible man, and to possess such a powerful symbol of the Tlingit Nation.

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