Alaska – Family Trees That Make Faces

FROM those three mining towns,–Juneau, Douglas and Treadwell,—close clustered at the head of Gastineau Channel, it is just one hundred miles to Skagway, where we shall leave the narrow seas at last and go ” inside” by land, crossing the great Coast Range over into Yukon drainage. So, while we drift north through Lynn Canal, I’d like to gossip about totem poles, the family trees that make faces; for, once across the ranges, we shall never see their like again.

Ever since we passed Vancouver Island we have been in totem country, and even the most supercilious tourist, regarding circumjacent humans with a look—and such a look!—has found his interest turned to wonder here. We began to see these strange sights at Alert Bay, where we saw too our first long, graceful and sharp-pointed Northwest Indian canoes.

A totem pole is a wooden column carved with men or beasts, or both. It may be as high as fifty feet, but is usually about twenty. The incredible brightly-painted beasts, with ” jaws that bite, the claws that catch,” are carved in deep grotesque relief. The native word for Jabberwock seems to be Ka-juk—a fabulous bird who hurls down rocks and looks like a great eagle.

At Alert Bay is a Raven totem crowned with a huge bird head, on which is set a stove-pipe hat! The eyes of this great bird-beast are bright red, the beak an, equally bright blue. Below is a queer hunched-up man-like figure, almost enfolded with great wings. Beneath this is a richly carven box, and then another beast’s head with a huge protruding beak that sticks out at least two feet. Still lower rests another man-like figure, also wrapped in wings; and on the side of this you see the fiercest-looking black hawk-head with great green eyes, hooked beak, and streaks of bright vermilion daubing it. The whole body of the hawk is patchwork cubist color. Supporting all this strange congeries of animated carvings, there. squats a crude and horrible crouched man, holding a spear. He has a leering mouth, and eyes and nose that also leer in gargoylesque grotesquerie. Every color of the spectrum has been laid upon this totem, and the images engraven here are lurid, memorable, as figures seen in nightmare.

Other poles are carved in effigies of massive frogs with hands clasped over their fat bellies, or birds with fierce projecting beaks, with painted wings out-stretched. Great rows of gleaming highly-whitened teeth are favorite designs, like tooth-paste ads. The coloring is raw and rigorous, the faces often livid green, the cheeks high-touched in black. There’s nothing like them elsewhere, so I’m told.

Now ” Totem” is a word that has been used in many senses, and by many scientists; but totems are, in general, the symbols of an old belief in human kinship with the animal world, a mystic spiritual rapport. ” The clan,” as Frazer says, ” sprang from the totem.” All savages, of course, believe in the human intelligence of animals. Our own fairy stories show this feeling, for in them the cat speaks, and the dog, and Siegfried’s bird gives warning.

These ” savages” believe, just as we when we were children believed, that man and animals are on an even footing, and can interchange ideas. The Indians go still further, and believe that they are actually, not figuratively, akin to beasts. For they say that certain stocks of men in certain tribes are actually descended from or are developed somehow out of certain animals, with which they still can claim familiar kinship. So totem poles to them are family trees or registers. To those who can decipher its crude imageries, the pole erected before a man’s house is a plain history to be read, in picture, of the family that lives within. The fabled beasts are no more strange to them than are to us the unicorn and lion that prance upon the British coat-of-arms. These beasts do not seem queer to us, for we have come to know them as a symbol. Yet no real lion ever took the posture this British lion does, nor twirled his tail so crookedly; and no such beast as unicorn exists. So, too, we picture boar and swan heads on our crests. Will Shakespeare had a spear and Washington a group of stars; but these don’t strike us strangely, though a man from Mars might ask—” Was Washington a star gazer? And this man Shakespeare—surely he must have been a famous javelin caster.”

The strange marks, dexter and sinister here, are no more drawn by chance than are the quarters of heraldic blazonry on fine old family crests of our own yesterday, paraded on the stationery and plate of most distinguished people. It’s Indian heraldry of ancient families, these Alaskan forests of totems carved in wood and painted in high color; but we have no wise Herald’s College to explain them to us now. The Thlingits are pure totemists; the Haida totem lore has faded into mystic heraldry which they keep but cannot always unriddle. The totems whisper down of old, unhappy, far-off things and battles —for us, but not yet for them—long since won out by human thinking.

For our own savage ancestors, back in the Old World, must have had a very similar belief in ” heathen” days; and reputable scientists find traces of this same habit, of naming families from beasts, among the ancient Semitic and Teutonic tribes, as well as among noble Greeks and Romans. Simeon means ” hyena-wolf,” I’m told; Caleb means ” dog,” Rachel ” an ewe,” Leah ” wild cow.” In Greek myth the swift wind, by certain mares, became the sire of wind-swift steeds, as mentioned in the Iliad. To early peoples, sky, sun, wind, and star as well as beasts were not only persons, but savage persons like the makers of the legends’ selves, and out of such beliefs they made their fables, when the world was young. Our ancient literatures are rich with this, nor can we well deny that such a fine and flavorsome old English name as Ethelwulf (noble wolf) bears witness to a primitive society that looked with favor on the notion of a certain kinship in character with the gray timber-rover.

Some wise men think that the apparent sanctity and prestige of certain animals, in old mythologies and legends, bear witness that our ancestors (long, long ago, even as the Indians of southeast Alaska, now) thought of themselves as brothers to the beasts. The fancy that the fairy tales of childhood are so full of, these Indian folk really believe; and we can know that they believe it, for they act as though it actually were true. No man will eat the flesh of any animal of which he thinks as kindred. The totem crests define the bonds of consanguinity, and all the children take the mother’s crest. No man may marry any woman with the same family name (that is, descended from the same common ancestor) ; and he believes not only, as the Haidas do for instance, that whenever a Haida is lost at sea his soul becomes a whale, but also that in dreams his cousin-beasts speak to him of their wisdom, counsel him and guide him.

From the dawn of time man has always been busy explaining this his world in terms of magic, science, or religion. We are constantly about it, trying to answer all the why and how of things. And here we can see, in totem, the nursery tales and legends of a primitive folk, in use and with the living reasons for them, and not as mere tradition or a tale. This savage mythology is the early way of satisfying that great questioning about our human whence and whither. Out of the simple things he knew best, out of beasts and birds and forms of wind and tree and fish, he built up answers to the rudiments of scientific curiosity. He did not build as we have built, chiefly because he did not know what we know.

These weather-beaten, time-worn, weird, strange totems are a sign-post to the past—souvenirs of the days when eagle, wolf and whale spoke the same speech as men, and told their secrets of the sky and sea, far seen. I wonder if perhaps such orders as the Elks and Moose find distant kinship here, in claiming for a group of human beings the noble qualities of animals?

There are many types of totems, as there are many uses for a coat-of-arms. They may be merely family trees set up outside a house, which serve as city directory to Indians. Members of a clan having the same totem name, though living many hundred miles apart and speaking different languages, are still considered blood relations; and, when in a strange village, a southeastern Alaskan Indian will look up at the totem poles outside the houses, until he comes to one that bears the crest of his own phratry, where he knows that he may always enter freely and be received as brother—quite as though he were a ” visiting Moose ” in a strange city! If not, he’d know himself a stranger and perhaps an enemy, and would pass on. There are totems that mark graves, and totems that are monuments to past events and record happenings. One “story master” totem at Kasaan is quite up to date. An eagle tops it, then comes the head of the Archangel Michael, next a Russian bishop, and at the base a white man’s head surmounted by an eagle. This tells to any Indian, well educated in the ” literature ” of his people, that a chief of the Eagle totem was baptized into the Russian Church—and how, and when, and why.

Like most peoples, the Indians of Alaska tell the story of a great flood, and they say that clam shells which they find upon high hills prove that there was once a flood covering the earth. And this flood scattered people, which accounts for the wide separation of families bearing the same name. When the flood came, the Raven took his mother in his claws, flew up, and stuck his beak into a cloud, hanging there until the flood subsided. But ever since, he’s had a beak that’s bent! The Raven is one of the important family totems, and, like the great god Horus of old Egypt or the hawk-headed Incan god, is greatly reverenced; but not as a “graven image,” for the totem has nothing to do with religion. It is distinctively a social symbol, of family caste and prestige, venerated but not worshipped. When the Indian refers to the Raven as ” creator,” as he sometimes does, he has no intention of saying that the Raven is his god, but merely that he was his first ancestor—his Adam, the progenitor of a human race, but not his great Jehovah. The only “worship” of totem poles amongst these people is that very same pride of family tradition which we ourselves jokingly refer to when we say of some friend of ours: “He worships his family tree!”

Because the crest was so important as a matter of social identification, every household and personal possession was marked with it—every utensil and every treasure, even spoons and dishes. Chests had the totem carved or painted on them, just as fine old English pieces from baronial halls have on them to this day the deeply-careen coats-of-arms of proud and ancient families. Totem entered intimately into the fine arts of this people, into their speech and common industry, into manners and laws, into folk lore and stories of the spirit world, for Indians believed that everything had spirits. “There were spirits of the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the hills, the mountains, and the trees,” they said. ” The man who comes in contact with these spirits is a great man among his people. The man who speaks with spirits may become the founder of a new clan.”

Open any of our own city directories and what do you find written there? Such common names as Crane, Drake, Fish, Fox, Lyon, Wolf are surely but vestigial totem marks, pointing out a certain distant kinship of our own with these strange and ” outlandish ” painted sign-posts of Alaskan fable. So these early, savage, almost universal beliefs, brought down to our own day in fairy tales of Grimm and AEsop, in werewolf stories, and the myth of Leda’s swan, stand careen here in the long gateway to the North for any wandering tourist eye to see, but not perhaps to understand.

” Man has a soul,” these painted gate-posts tell, ” which is connected some way with his breath, and can be separated from him, some way, out of the material body—temporarily in sleep, permanently in death. The animals, and even wind and sky and sea, have souls too, and wear our human powers and passions, emotions, voice, intelligence.” So the poets of a long-gone day translated into human thought the voices of the universe. So the totems read. So sing they, say they, tell they the tale of ancient guess-work into the mysterious realm of metaphysical arcana. . ” The savage, too, from forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep, guesses at heaven.”

But just as Pilgrims of old days, on their long way to a new home, might well have stopped en route at Greenland and seen and found there much of stranger ways, unlike to anything or anybody on the continent to which they went or whence they came, but could not tarry there and must go hurrying on, for they were bound for a new land still further on beyond; so we, though we perhaps should like to live amongst these stranger people and learn at first hand more of all the ” why ” back of these totem poles, we too must hurry on.

Perhaps we could not ever learn the secret, for perhaps it is already lost. The totems stand, like Stonehenge, only to remind us of a past that was, but is not.