Book review: The Totem Pole by Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass
Published by Douglas & McIntyre, 384 pp, $60, hardcover
Words like seminal, definitive, and encyclopedic are bound to accrue to The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History. Its American authors, art historian Aldona Jonaitis and artist turned anthropologist Aaron Glass (who attended Emily Carr University in the late 1990s), discuss not only the origins, development, and meanings of this most iconic object of Northwest Coast aboriginal culture, but also the ways in which the totem pole has been absorbed into the popular imagination around the world. Widely researched and richly illustrated, this big, beautiful book tells us why we find images of totem poles on everything from fridge magnets and Frisbees to back scratchers and Boy Scout badges.
In slightly text-bookish fashion, The Totem Pole reviews and consolidates the observations of 18th-century visitors to the Northwest Coast, the conditions of the early otter-fur trade that stimulated totem-pole production, the important connections between totem-pole carving and potlatching, and the subsequent negative impacts of white settlement, missionizing, and assimilationist government policies. It also notes the abilities of Northwest Coast groups to resist cultural erasure and, bringing things forward to the present day, examines the role totem poles may play in contemporary land claims.
More interesting are the chapters on the totem pole’s significance in the wider world of visual culture, including its placement in museums worldwide; its exploitation as an image to promote tourism; its romantic and nationalistic positioning in the art of Emily Carr and the Group of Seven; and its geographically ridiculous appropriation as decoration outside “Native trading posts” from Sioux Narrows, Ontario, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Also fascinating is the dissemination of the totem pole as icon through world’s fairs and international expositions. The authors record that the “first public presentation of a totem pole outside the Northwest Coast was at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition”. It was here, they continue, that totem poles—along with feather headdresses, tomahawks, “peace” pipes, and tepees—“became symbols of a generalized American Indianness”.
Expanding the book’s compass are sidebars by a number of Northwest Coast First Nations artists and historians. Their stories and observations nicely inflect this important guide to a rich and compelling topic.