The Thunder Bird Tootooch Legends, by W.L. Webber, , at sacred-texts.com
When the early explorers, Captain Cook and the Fur Trader, Captain John Mears, sailed the seas of the Pacific Northwest, a great deal of their time was spent on the West Coast of Vancouver Island at Nootka, then known as "Friendly Cove," where the early ships of the Spanish Dons chanced to touch.
The early adventurers observed that the aborigines practiced what they thought to be a hitherto unknown religion, having many weird rituals and ceremonies and requiring a grotesque regalia representing the supernatural animals and birds. This religion has since been identified as Totemism.
Totemism was created in the pre-historic age by the fathers of organized society and improved as the mentality of the human race developed. When ancient hunting had ceased, the tribes formed themselves into fishing communes, out of which rose private property, social classes and slaves, thereby creating the custom of barter. This first transition of mankind occurred thousands of years ago in Europe, Asia and Africa. The records of these first human movements are given in stone on the Upper Nile and in the temples of India. It is hard to imagine in these modern times, when civilization is supposed to be at a high peak, that the Indians of the Northwest and other North American Indians, were so belated. The transitions of the human race are slow, they have many setbacks. Totemistic societies still function in many other parts of the world, as among the native tribes of Australia, Korea, and even in modern Japan.
The functions of the Totemism of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest and, especially, the British Columbia, represent many aspects. The first Totemic Symbol was supposed by the ancestors of these tribes to have floated to their shores from some unknown source. On it were perched three crows to guide it through the troubled waters of remote seas. The Indians also believed that when their forefathers were first placed upon the earth it was essential that they should marry their kith and kin, but they later discovered that if they were to continue this practice their race would decay. This was arrested by forbidding the members of the same family to mate, being blood relations. From this sprung totemism, functioning with its clans and their many septs. Among the Haidas, the seat of the culture, there came into being the Sky People and the Ocean People. From the Sky People came the Raven (Thunder Bird among other tribes), and the Eagle. From these came the septs embracing the Sun, Sky, Stars, the Moon and Birds and the Grandmother, the first Creator. From the Ocean People sprang the creatures that live in the water: Blackfish (Killer Whale), Codfish, Halibut, Salmon, Seal and Sea Otter, as well as many supernatural animals that were supposed to live beneath the sea. These latter are so grotesque that they seem to have stepped out of the preglacial ages of the dinosaurs. Around these symbols were created their culture and legends. They preserved them by carving them on their implements of daily use,
also painting them in their interiors of their lodges, as they had not arrived mentally at the point of devising a method of inscribing this history on monuments or on the written page.
Prior to the time when the Indians came in contact with the Europeans, there were no outside Totem Poles or elaborate carvings. These were only achieved by the advent of iron tools, the culture therefore reached its height between 1860 and 1900. Indian villages of British Columbia then became veritable forests of totem poles, there being from ten to fifty erected in each locality. After 1900 the culture slowly declined on account of the Indian Act of the Dominion, which governs Indian affairs, and which forbids Potlatch Gatherings. The Clergy also prevailed upon the Indians saying: "There is only one true God." Hundreds of totems were cut down and burned. Some of the tribesmen deplored the destruction of these relics of art. Many of the grotesque and hideous monsters of their imagination were saved by collectors and found their way to museums throughout the world. At present there is not an Indian settlement of the North Pacific Coast that can show much of its former splendour. Due to the prohibition of Potlatches, which curtails their rites and feasts, the Indian's secret orders are now the almost forgotten glory of a changing race.
Of the aborigines of the Northwest there were only five tribes that carved Totem Poles, these were in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia and comprised the Haidas, Tsimshians, Bella Coola, Kwakitutl and Nootka. There are various kinds of Totem Poles, they can not all be treated fully in this book: Family poles, Tribal Totems, and House Posts. The latter are used to support the heavy beams in community or private houses. They are from ten to twelve feet in height and composed of two or three objects such as Thunder Bird, Bear and a Slave (Two examples are to be seen in Stanley Park, Vancouver) or whatever was the owner's crest. Tribal Totem Poles are the mythological history which would embrace forms of genealogy, charms, evil spirits, legends and witchcraft. This would also apply to family Totems, which would also be inscribed with the individual's greatness gained through potlatches or by heredity and which were generally erected by the nephew of the deceased, the next in line of inheritance.
This passing of the inheritance to the nephew, may at first glance, appear an injustice to his son, but when we take into consideration the fact that primitive people simply do not recognize male parentage, tracing all their genealogies through the female side, it is not an unreasonable arrangement. Any man may not be able to swear that his wife's son is his own, but he can certainly swear that his sister's son is his nephew. Again, we must remember that the son may have even better prospects as heir to his mother's brother.
The carving and erection of a totem pole was a very complicated and expensive undertaking, the carving alone, in some cases, costing as much as two thousand dollars and requiring months of labor. The carving of a Totem Pole for the deceased was generally looked after by the brother, in the interests of the nephew. The brother would
consult the relatives who would discuss the matter fully, giving him the privilege of employing the carvers and selecting the cedar tree. This wood endures the elements longer than any other native timber. The neighboring tribes would then be invited to a potlatch which would last from two to three weeks. Food would be supplied to the guests. A great feast (gift feast) would take place accompanied by many dances and ceremonies and a general jollification. Useful presents would be distributed. In modern times it might be a blanket, a stove, a sewing machine or money. To each of the invited guests such enormous amounts would be given that the tribe or family would often be impoverished and become public charges. Some of these potlatches have been known to cost as much as $15,000.
The mythological art of the North Pacific Coast Indians is one of the most grotesque and beautiful of any of the native tribes if the North American Continent. The symmetrical lines and circles add tone throughout. One wonders how the primitive mind was capable of finding so many ways to add harmony and balance to each curve. Here and there was added the ever-seeing eye, it was carved or painted on utensils or tools or in the many different designs, for did not the eye have to see what was to be accomplished? Some of the eyes, including the human eye, are inserted in the body of the figure.
The Totem's symbols are never overlooked and are bound to excite the interest of the most casual observer. The small wooden, and more especially the slate Totem Poles, are also remarkable on account of the fantastic overlapping methods applied to each symbol without destroying its identity, but more often adding interest at some spot that at first seems to portray no significance. A cunning twist in the carving makes it perfect. Supernatural beings are always cut in such a way as to expose the tips of their ears, signifying that they lived as people on earth when it was in semi-darkness, before the light burst forth from the heavens through the aid of the Young Raven.
The transition of the primitive aboriginal from a state, of cannibalism and barbarism to the democracy of the white man has been such a severe shock that they have lost a generation of activity. It is only of recent years that they have become interested enough in themselves to carry on the arts and crafts of their fathers. The older people have kept the fires of memory burning by telling the deeds of the past to the younger generation, thereby stimulating the desire to carve again, but this time, up to the present, only to the extent of making small wooden totem poles for strangers who visit their villages. Most of the totems purchased are a mere confusion of carving, one object on top of another, giving the totem no special significance. To obtain a story pole with the story, would be almost impossible as it would be beneath the dignity of a Chief to carve and sell his own coat-of-arms. Other Indians would be ridiculed should they attempt to exploit the crest of another. The only one who is allowed to exercise that privilege is the reputable professional carver, retained to carve for the members of the tribe.