Jewell James: artist profile
Welcome to the NLM Health Totem Blog.
As the healing totem pole that will be part of the National Library of Medicine’s Native Voices exhibition, opening October 6, 2011, begins its coast-to-coast journey of nearly 5,000 miles from Semiahmoo, Washington, to the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland, we thought we should introduce the artist who created it.
Jewell Praying Wolf James, a master carver of totems or healing poles displayed around the world, selected, designed, and carved the healing totem for the NLM’s Native Voices exhibition. An artist of international standing as well as an advocate of worldwide environmental restoration and preservation of natural and cultural heritage sites, he is a descendant from Chief Seattle’s immediate family (after whom the city of Seattle was named), and Head Carver of the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Indian Nation. The Lummi, the “People of the Sea,” are the original inhabitants of the Puget Sound area of Washington’s northernmost coast and southern British Columbia, Canada.
The House of Tears Carvers and the Lummi Nation created a new tradition by distributing totem poles to areas struck by disasters and in need of hope and healing. The totem pole, along with the two benches designed to accompany the pole, will reside outside the National Library of Medicine after journeying across the country on a mission to promote awareness of good health.
James previously sculpted three sets of totem poles carved from red cedar trees to honor victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The totem poles (in Sterling Forest, northwest of New York City, in Orange County, New York, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia) promote healing and peace while honoring lives lost and victims’ families. In presenting the Liberty and Freedom totem poles to the families of the 184 Pentagon victims on September 19, 2004, James said “the totem pole isn’t a sacred thing. It’s the sacredness of love joining us together. We have the power to heal, the power to love each other, the power to unite—that’s what the symbol is about.”
The two upright 15-foot totem poles, Freedom (left), and Liberty (right), carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James and his House of Tears Carvers stand outside the Pentagon,. The Liberty pole features a female bear with a “grandmother moon” in her abdomen. The Freedom pole displays a male bear with a “grandfather sun.” The 34-foot Sovereignty crossbar joining the two poles displays eagles carved on each end, with two sets of seven feathers representing the American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11th. The female eagle symbolizes peace and the male symbolizes war.
In the picture above, the image on crossing pole piece shows a person in sitting position, This is the ‘male version’ that represents the Indian in the Moon. In contrast, the NLM totem will feature the ‘female version’ of the Indian in the moon. The latter partially symbolizes the Algonquin myth of the Medicine Woman in the Moon.
Jewell Praying Wolf James is a 1972 graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle and studied under master carver Marvin Oliver, professor of American Indian studies and art at the University of Washington.
Jewell James credits working with his late brother Dale James, one of the original founders of the House of Tears Carvers, for his start in the art of wood carving.
“I was impressed with his commitment,” Jewell James says of his brother. “I was married and with my first child while in high school. I was on my own already, with my own family. I went home and saw what my little brother was doing and decided to start studying the art in case he ever needed my help. That was in 1972, the year I went off to college in search of more information about Northwest Indian Art.”