The more I learn about Northwest Coast art, the more the term “totem pole” bothers me. For years, I’ve been looking for a better term, and now I think I’ve found a couple.
“Totem pole” bothers me for two reasons. To start with, despite what the Europeans believed when they reached the northwest coast of North America, the artifacts that the term refers to are not totems. A totem is a supernatural guardian of a group of people, often their mythological ancestor – a minor deity comparable to the local spirits of the ancient Greeks. However, so-called totem poles classically did not depict totems, but hereditary crests and the occasional allusion to both historical and mythical accounts of the family that uses the crest.
In other words, when the European settlers destroyed the artifacts in the belief that they were destroying false gods, what they were really doing was the equivalent of smashing and defacing the coats of arms depicted on government buildings and the houses of the rich in Europe.
In addition, the popular term has also given rise the idiomatic expression “low man on the totem pole.” This expression suggests that the most important figures were always at the top, when, in reality, no fixed conventions existed about positioning across the Northwest cultures. In fact, in some cultures, such as the Tsimshian, the most important figure was placed on the bottom, and figures of secondary importance at the top, according to master carver Henry Green.
You could use “crest pole” instead, as I have occasionally seen. But the trouble is, I also object to the word “pole.” True, “pole” is technically accurate, being a word that describes a round object made of wood, and it is often used today in place of “totem pole.” However, it greatly understates the magnificence of many of the artifacts to which it is applied. You might as well call the Arc de Triomphe a gateway or a slab.
My first hint of an alternative came when Henry Green referred to a pole he is doing using the Sm’algyax (Coast Tsimshian) word “pts’aan.” Seeing this word was a bit of a revelation, because I realized that I had never heard the word in any First Nations language for a pole. It seems to me that, if we are starting to use the original name of cities and countries, pronouncing the capital of France as “Paree” instead of “Paris” and using “Suomi” instead of “Finland,” then we might also consider using the proper names for important cultural institutions and artifacts.
Apparently, though, “pts’aan” has an even more exact meaning. According to Green, it refers specifically to a pole that is hollowed out and flattened at the back. By contrast, a pole that is left fully rounded is a “k’an.”
Seeing these words, I asked Green what he might suggest for an English translation (assuming that we need one). He emailed back, referring to both a pts’aan and a k’an as columns. Perhaps you could call a pts’aan a half-column and a k’an a column in English? If other Northwest Coast cultures have additional terms, then “column” could be further qualified as needed.
This change of terms, I think, could have a powerful effect on how the Northwest Coast cultures are regarded. Regardless of whether you refer to a totem pole, a crest pole, or just a pole, a pole sounds like a simple, utilitarian object. A pole, after all, is something you use for fishing, or to hang a light from.
However, call a pts’aan or k’an a column, and you are making it the equal of Trajan’s Column or Nelson’s Column. Suddenly, by using “column” instead of “pole,” you realize that you are talking about an object of major importance to its culture – something that required considerable effort and artistic skill to create, and celebrates something important. You are forced to confront the fact that the cultures that made such things are not primitive (assuming that this word actually refers to anything these days), but as complex and as rich as any in Europe. Just by changing the word, your entire perspective changes.
Probably, “totem pole” is too entrenched to be replaced easily. However, I am seriously thinking of trying to promote the use of “column” as a replacement. It simply seems more accurate and precise.