PHOTO: Haida Gwaii Totem
Displayed at the old Provincial Museum, in B.C.
What does the word “totem” really mean?
More and more these days people explore the word “totem” by studying and exploring animals, plants or minerals as a symbolic representation of themselves or their spiritual journey. Often, people speak of totems as protective artifacts or even as spirit guides.
In late adolescence I met a Mohawk man, an artist who sculpted totems all day long in the back of his home. He was the kind of person who didn’t mind being watched, a natural teacher. He explained that traditionally Totem Poles were sculptured monuments of red cedar trees; which ranged between 3 to 20 meters long. A Totem Pole basically depicted shape-shifting figures of people and animals. You’d find these poles often towering over lodges (often the Chief’s home); or carved in doorways to inspire a shift in attitude for ceremonies. A good number of Totem Poles represented the lineage of particular individuals or families.
Today, we often borrow traditions, rituals and even ceremonies from cultures other than our own, and we redefine them through our personal filters. From a Shamanic point of view this kind of behavior is actually quite natural. The Sacred Circle tradition tells us that it’s part of life to move around in circles and constantly change. One of the Moons on the Wheel even tells us that “we are prone to mimic what we find beautiful or what we are told is right.” No doubt humans have always moved through a combination of social programs, and a need to grow out of the past and away from the limiting ways of our ancestry.
Still there’s an aspect in change that I personally find sad. With transformation comes the extinction of certain beliefs, certain social / cultural / religious ways, and wisdom. No matter how many relics archeologists may find we will never again totally comprehend how they were used and who used them.
Forever floating in theories.
It isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the self-discovery; which accompanies the exercise of connecting to an animal, plant or stone that may represent aspects of my personality or inner reality; “ but there’s no doubt more to the word and to what it means to have a “totemic experience.”
Amongst the Cree, the Mohawks and the MicMac people the word “totem” implies “relations.” We know that the Haida People from out west often connected the Totem Poles to their Potlatch Ceremony. EC a friend and Passamaquoddy teacher often talked about the Potlatch ceremony as an opportunity for people to gather together and celebrate Creation. There was an understanding that during the Potlatch festivities people shared their wealth (material: food, blankets, trinkets etc…) and did so in peace.
Potlatch also allowed individuals to celebrate weddings, birthdays, adoptions and deaths. After all it was the biggest gathering of “loved ones” you could ever witness. Similarly to what we see during a PowWow – the Potlatch offered peaceful competitions in sports, dancing, singing and even crafts. The idea was to celebrate “relations” and all that it implies.
If anything the concept of Totem and the Potlatch Ceremony implied “relationships”. Whether people explored couple, family, community, Nation or natural / Creation relations – the Totem represented the learning and healing which was revealed through this experience.
Every year we give two to four workshops and have the opportunity to gather with Shamanic communities all over the Planet. Honestly, I always come out of these experiences grieving a loss. There’s so much that occurs during these week-long reunions. Every gathering is different and over the last 20 years, it feels like I’ve literally amassed more than 500 years worth of lessons (healing and learning) through these priceless, deep and intense connections (relations). I can just imagine how wonderful it must have been to participate in a Potlatch Ceremony 1,000 years ago.
Looking at the way we celebrate birthdays or organize funerals today, there’s a sense that we still carry this distant memory of social gatherings, festivities, entertainment and gift giving. We seem to be getting at the end of a cycle though, where there’s less and less consciousness behind our actions. It’s upsetting really because we are not completing a dream / sacred circle with as end results the jewels of our labors. NO! We are just closing memories down as if we had dementia.
I can’t help but look at every story with the perspective of a Dreamer. We still have opportunities through our daily living to recognize the beauty of the past and gather up its wisdom: Truly remember! For example, the idea of wearing party hats and costumes often excites children and adults alike. The Potlatch of yesterday would have been filled with people wearing masks and regalia to show off their lineage or heritage not unlike what we may see during an Olympian opening ceremony. It seemed as important then, as it is now to represent “OUR people” and to show off our unique skills and abundance.
I’m sure there are still ways today to celebrate “our relations” and to make it a festivity that dedicates to the medicine / power / wisdom of couple relationships, families, communities and perhaps even humanity. We sure need “something” that will bring us back to collective living and make it work for us.
Typically the Potlatch practice would have occurred during Fall or Winter – right after the harvest.
The first Europeans who studied the First Nation people thought Totem Poles depicted pagan Gods and demons. They assumed that the First Nation people worshipped animals and natural spirits. In 1884 the Canadian Government outlawed the Potlatch Ceremony. A missionary named William Duncan actually wrote in 1875 that the “Potlatch was an obstacle in the way of Indians of becoming Christians.” The way I see it they abolished the tradition in order to bring forth assimilation.
2013 – and I’m teaching about Totems. I’d like for people to understand that it’s more then about “shape shifting into animals and self-discovery”. It’s about “relations” and coming together to share beauty and abundance.