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Two Landmarks of Native American Heritage

Don’t miss these Totem Poles of the Lummi People in Bellingham

This November, wherever your travels may take you, be sure to celebrate Native American Heritage month by seeking out and enjoying Indigenous art — such as totem poles. This is a rewarding and meaningful way to engage with the stories, cultures, values and fine art forms offered by the many talented Indigenous artists of the Western Hemisphere.

With 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, Native American art is rich in variety and rooted in many unique cosmologies which are often intricately interwoven with local landscapes and waterways. Whether employing contemporary styles and methods or carrying forward art forms steeped in tradition, Indigenous artists have a striking and ancient legacy of producing work that is significant, relevant, masterful and profoundly beautiful.

One of the most popular and public forms of Indigenous art in the Pacific Northwest is the Sxwiam ilch (story tree). Or as it’s more commonly known — the totem pole. Although long practiced by Tlinget, Haida and other northern tribes, the art form is relatively new to Coast Salish and Straits Salish tribes. Beginning in the early 1900s, the form was adopted by carvers in Washington state and Southern British Columbia to record and share our stories.

The Bellingham Centennial History Pole
The Bellingham Centennial History Pole. Photo by Edmund Lowe/Alamy.

Different Visions

Two distinct and drastically different examples of Coast Salish totem poles are within a mile of each other in the ancestral homelands of the Lummi tribe, which is now the picturesque bayside town of Bellingham, Washington. These story poles were created by two different Lummi carvers within 20 years of each other and offer distinctive approaches which highlight each carver’s unique vision and aesthetic.

The Bellingham Centennial History Pole, carved by master carver, Joe Hillaire, was commissioned in 1952 to tell the story of the first white people to arrive in the territory and the hospitality they received from the two Lummi leaders who greeted them. The pole stands fully restored in front of the Bellingham Court House within the bounds of what was once a Lummi fishing village.

The pole is decorated in Hillaire’s distinctive style, using bright colors and lively imagery that feels animated and has a modern flair. At the base of the pole is a canoe paddled by the two tribal leaders, Tsi’li’xw and Chowitsut. Chowitsut was one of the signors sent by the Lummi people to negotiate the Treaty of Point Elliott at Mukilteo in 1855.

The Story of Chowitsut

As you follow the story up the pole, you see a man playing slahal, an ancient gambling game. It is said that Chowitsut was shamed after gambling away one of his father’s precious belongings. To try to make things right he went looking for his spirit power. In his quest he received a vision of the sun coming toward him, holding a gift in each hand. This vision inspired the crest that was carved on his Potlatch House located at the tip of the Lummi reservation. On the story pole, you’ll see the crest pictured above the gambler.

In Chowitsut’s vision, the sun told him that he would give four great potlatches in his lifetime. This promise was fulfilled as is shown in the four rows of baskets stacked side-by-side ascending toward a fifth set of baskets which may tell of the fifth great potlatch that was not promised and which never took place. (It is written that Chowitsut died on the eve of his fifth great potlatch.)

Above the baskets indicating the fateful potlatch, is a legendary beast, the say-nilh-xay, who is a feared protector of the people. The beast holds together a bundle of cattails which are meant to represent the Lummi people. Hillaire chose cattails as the symbol for the tribe because they stand together and are undying throughout the year. Endurance and solidarity were necessary strengths in the tumultuous times after the signing of the treaty and the removal of Lummi people from their abundant and beloved homelands.

Up the back of the pole you’ll see a person wearing a raven headdress. He is meant to symbolize a witness and teller of tales. Above this figure is a black bear spirit dancer, a salmon and a wolf spirit dancer. The salmon indicates the fish’s significance to the people, while the spirit dancers represent Lummi’s continued celebration of cultural traditions in song and dance.

Hillaire, the carver of this story pole is quoted as saying, “It is only as Indian art is made available to the American people and they get familiar with it and use it in their homes that the Indian will be better understood.”

Salmon Lady Totem Pole
Salmon Lady. Photo courtesy fo

Salmon Woman

The second pole was carved by master carver Dale James and stands in Maritime Heritage Park, overlooking the former site of a historic Lummi fishing village along Whatcom Creek. Although it was carved nearly 20 years after the Bellingham Centennial pole, this Salmon Woman pole is carved in what might be considered a more traditional style.

Forgoing contemporary colors and imagery, the pole stands elegant and austere to tell the treasured story of Salmon Woman — how she sacrificed her salmon-children so that the people would have nourishment to live. In exchange, the people promised to honor her gift and follow certain rules which would ensure the continued return of the salmon.

There are several variations of this traditional story, but one consistent detail is that we should always honor and protect the salmon and be grateful for our food. The version specific to this totem pole is installed on a placard at its base to offer insight into each of the images on the totem pole, and invite viewers into a deeper reflection on the legend’s messages. 

This November, wherever your travels may take you, be sure to celebrate Native American Heritage month by seeking out and enjoying Indigenous art. This is a rewarding and meaningful way to engage with the stories, cultures, values and fine art forms offered by the many talented Indigenous artists of the Western Hemisphere.

– Written by Rena Priest, last updated in October 2022.
– Photos in the top collage by Rena Priest

Rena Priest is a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation and the incumbent Washington State Poet Laureate.  

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