About Northwest Indians Totem Posts.
On approaching villages of many tribes on the Northwest Coast, the traveler sees great numbers of carved wooden posts. The largest, most striking, and most curious are no doubt those of the Tlingit of Alaska, and the Haida of Queen Charlotte Islands. Some of these posts stand in front of the houses, or very near them; others are set near the beach, beyond the village. When old they are weather-beaten and gray. They are sometimes compared to a forest of tree trunks left after a fire has swept through a wooded district.
Chief's House: Queen Charlotte's Inlet. (From Photograph.)
There are three kinds of these carved posts,—totem posts, commemorative posts, and death posts. The death posts are the simplest of the three. Among the Tlingit and Haida the dead were usually burned. If the man had been important, a display was made of his body. He was dressed in his finest clothing, and all his treasures were placed around him. People came for some days to see his riches. At last the day for the burning of his body arrived. Many persons were present. The faces of the mourners were blackened, their hair cut short, and their heads were sprinkled with eagle-down. After the body had been burned, the ashes were gathered and put into a box, which was placed in a cavity hollowed out in the lower part of the death post. This was the old custom; nowadays the ashes may be put somewhere else. At the top of the death post was a cross-board on which was carved or painted the totem of the dead man.
The second kind of carved post is the commemorative post, put up to celebrate some important event. An old chief named Skowl once erected a great post near his house. He had erected it to commemorate the failure of the Russian missionaries to convert his village to Christianity. When the last missionary had gone, he put it up to recall their failure and to ridicule their religion. It was curiously carved. At the top was an eagle; below it a man with his right hand lifted, pointing to the sky; below it an angel; then a priest with his hands crossed upon his breast; then an eagle; lastly a trader.
The totem posts are, however, the most interesting. They are taller, more carefully made, and more elaborately carved than the others. They stand in front of the houses; among Tlingit at one side, among Haida at the very middle and close to the house. In fact, among the Haida the doorway of the house was a hole cut through the lower end of the totem post. The carvings on these posts refer to the people living in the house. Thus, in one Haida totem post there was a brown bear at the top—the totem of the man of the house; next came four skil or divisions of a hat; then came the great raven; then the bear and the hunter; then a bear—the last being the totem of the woman of the house.
Among the Tlingit and Haida every one bears the name of some animal or bird. Thus, among the Tlingit there are eighteen great families, with the name of wolf, bear, eagle, whale, shark, porpoise, puffin, orca, orca-bear; raven, frog, goose, beaver, owl, sea-lion, salmon, dogfish, crow. The first nine of these are considered related to one another; so are the last nine related. A man may not marry a woman of his own animal name or totem; nor can he marry one of the related families. Thus a wolf man could not marry a woman who was a wolf, or an eagle, or a shark, but he might marry a raven or a frog.
With us a child takes its father's name, but with these people it takes its mother's name. If a bear man married a raven woman, all the children would be ravens. The animal whose name a man bears is his totem. There is always some story told by people as to how they came to have their totem. Every one believes that the animal that is his totem can help him, and he pays much respect to it.
One story of how the bear became a totem is as follows: Long, long ago an Indian went into the mountains to hunt mountain goats. When far from home he met a black bear who took him home with him, and taught him to build boats and catch salmon. The man stayed two years with the bear, and then went home to his village. Every one feared him, for they thought him a bear; he looked just like one. One man, however, caught him and took him home to his house. He could not speak, and could not eat cooked food. A great medicine man advised that he should be rubbed with magic herbs. When this was done, he became a man again. After that, whenever he wanted anything, he went out into the woods and found his bear friend, who always helped him. What the bear taught him was of great use to him, and he caught plenty of salmon in the winter time when the river was covered with ice. The man built a fine new house, and painted the picture of a bear upon it. His sister made him a new dancing blanket, and into it she wove a picture of a bear. Ever since then the descendants of that man's sister have the bear for their totem.
Now you see something of the meaning of the totem posts. Upon them are carved the totems of the people living in the house. They are a great doorplate, giving the names of the family. This is important, because among Indians all the persons who have the same totem must help one another. If a man were in trouble, it was the duty of his totem-fellows to aid him. If he were a stranger, it was their duty to receive him. When a Tlingit or Haida found himself in a strange village, his first care would be to examine the totem posts to find one that bore his own totem.
At the house marked by it he would surely be welcome.
At the house marked by it he would surely be welcome.
Hat of Northwest Coast, Top and Side View. (From Original in Peabody Museum.)
But it was a rare thing for a totem post to have only the figures of the totems of the man and his wife. Other designs were carved in between these. These other designs might tell of the man's wealth or his importance, or they might represent some family story. The people of every totem had many stories which belonged only to them. In the totem post, already described, probably the great raven, and the bear, and the hunter, represented such stories. The four skil probably indicated that the man was important, for a man's importance is shown by the number of skil in his hat. The carving at the bottom, however, was most significant, for it gave the name of the woman and all her children.