Meaning and symbols in the NLM healing totem – 1

After a five-month, 5,000-mile cross country odyssey from Semiahmoo, WA, a brightly colored, richly carved totem pole will stand in front of the National Library of Medicine as a prominent feature of the Library’s Native Voices exhibition. Symbolizing health and healing, the totem is the work of master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James of the House of Tears Carvers, Lummi Indian Nation in Washington State.

Through symbols, shapes and colors, the NLM’s totem pole will illustrate a multi-faceted tale of hope and harmony with nature. There couldn’t be a more symbolic place for it than on the NIH campus, where doctors and scientists dedicate their lives to medicine and better health.

The totem pole is being carved from Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), which is native to western North America and British Columbia and the material of choice of Lummi Indian Nation carvers. Red cedar is lightweight, water-resistant and extremely durable—qualities guaranteed to help it withstand many years of Washington, DC’s often severe weather swings.

A hand drawn sketch with dimensions depicting the artist's concepts for the totem

A hand drawn sketch with dimensions depicting the artist's concepts for the totem

The pinnacle of the Library’s new pole depicts the Algonquin traditional story of the Medicine Woman in the Moon:  a woman sitting on the moon, near a fire, weaving a headband, her cat combing her hair and her walking stick behind her. In Native American traditional stories, the moon is the guardian of the earth by night, and the Algonquin Nations, of the northeast United States, ascribe insight and creative powers to the Medicine Woman in the Moon.

The Tree of Life occupies the middle of the totem. This symbol of the forest provides natural healing medicines, and was/is the initial tool to cure human ailments. At the bottom of the totem, holding up both the Tree of Life and the Medicine Woman in the Moon, will be a woman with a basket, representing the traditional women gatherers of medicinal plants.


The totem’s vivid colors reflect the deep meaning of the stories told:

  • Red, for blood, war or valor;
  • Blue for the skies, rivers, lakes and waters so important to all;
  • White for the spacious heavens;
  • Yellow for the sun, bringer of light and happiness;
  • Green for earth’s mountains, valleys, hills and trees, and
  •  Black — for power.
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One thought on “Meaning and symbols in the NLM healing totem – 1

  1. Pingback: Healing totem journey | Public Health–Research & Library News

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