National Geographic : 1945 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine On the other hand, the highly characteris tic wood-carving art of the North Pacific coast was already fully developed by the middle of the 18th century, as can be seen from the excellent descriptions and illustrations of smaller objects collected by the expeditions of Captain Cook, Capt. George Dixon, Malas pina, and others. Wooden house posts and grave posts were already well developed, although the first ex amples seem to have been much simpler than they became later on. There seems little doubt that the totem pole evolved from the practice of carving the center house post, with a few ideas from the grave post grafted on. Iron tools were introduced by the Russians in the middle of the 18th century. With carv ing facilitated by them, it was easy to see how the desire of the Haida or Tsimshian aristocrats to outdo one another in making bigger and better house posts would result, first, in a house post reaching above the roof of the house and, finally, in one being erected as a detached mast. Totem-pole Art Now Extinct From these early beginnings totem-pole art gradually increased with respect to both size and merit, reaching its peak of development between the years 1840 and 1880. From this period the art rapidly declined, when the native cultures began to break down as a result of the ever-increasing contact with the whites. The Haida abandoned the custom of erect ing totem poles (Plate II) shortly after the year 1880. - In other areas it persisted until after 1900. The most recent poles have been erected at some of the villages on the upper Skeena River. Now the totem pole is virtually extinct. Poles of recent vintage erected in various places outside their proper territory are his toric imitations. The practice of carving miniature totem poles for sale as souvenirs is almost a century old. Some of the early examples, carved from wood or from black slate obtained from the Queen Charlotte Islands, are of high artistic merit. The quantity made for sale reflects the nonreligious nature of the art. The earliest totem poles probably were painted in red, black, and white pigments, but elaborate use of colors did not develop until the introduction of commercial paints. During the latter half of the 19th century, ethnologists encountered many old Indians who remembered the development of the totem pole and the elaboration of the ceremonies that accompanied it. According to the Haida, decorative designs were first painted, then carved on the slabs comprising the front of the house; next on a broad, thick plank, through the lower portion of which was the door opening. This was finally elaborated into the totem pole, which at first always had a round open ing at the base as the entrance to the house. Later the hole was eliminated and a regular door was built alongside the base of the pole. A similar evolution was reported by the Tlingit. The final step was when poles were erected detached from the house. Among the interior villages of the Tsimshian, the poles were placed in a row, well in front of the houses. Sometimes these poles reached a height of more than 50 feet. Occasionally the four principal supporting posts of the house were also carved. Only in houses of very wealthy people were inside posts carved. When such a post was used it was usually placed in the center of the rear wall, behind the fire. Grave posts were arranged in various ways. Sometimes a single thick post supported a large square carved box in which were offer ings and the remains of the deceased. Some times two posts were utilized to support a long box. Still another custom was to build a small mortuary house and to erect a memorial pole in another place. These carvings normally represented the family crests of the dead, whereas the house post carvings might be in the nature of illus trations to stories, with the addition of al most any items which might strike the fancy of the owner. The placing of burial boxes on grave posts might have developed from the old custom of such tribes as the Nootka and Kwakiutl, who put them high up in trees, stripping off all of the limbs below. Burial practices, however, were far from uniform. Some tribes put the bodies in canoes (Plate V), placed on scaffolds, taking the precaution first of rendering the canoe unfit for further use. On the Queen Charlotte Islands, burial boxes were sometimes con cealed in caves. The Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit all prac ticed cremation, only shamans (Plate IV) in these tribes being buried. Burial in the earth was generally viewed with horror, and it was with great difficulty that the Northwest Coast Indians were persuaded to adopt the practice. Now it is not uncommon to see a cemetery with white-marble tombstones, fashioned by Italian stonecutters, bearing the typical ani mal crests in regular totem-pole style and accompanied by Biblical verses.