Totem poles are a long-standing tradition that go back centuries for Native American tribes. Today, even with modern equipment and tools, it is a complex, multi-skilled task to construct one. The totem pole that will stand in the NLM herb garden for the Native Voices exhibition is the result of countless hours of work and cooperation among the House of Tears carvers of the Lummi Nation.
Jewell Praying Wolf James, the Head Carver, and Ramona James, the Head Painter, for the House of Tears, encourage the members of the Lummi Nation, particularly younger people, to join in and help with the creation of the totem pole. It is an opportunity, James says, to participate in a good cause, and learn the ancient art of wood carving.
For the NLM pole and benches, a half-dozen assistants help Jewell James while a similar number paint with Ramona James. The assistants range in age from 9 to 79 years-old with several in their 20s. They help with the carving, sanding, clean up, design application and painting. It is, says Jewell James, a real community experience.
James begins by searching for a suitable old-growth red cedar tree that can legally be harvested from the forest near the Lummi Nation Reservation close to Bellingham, Washington. Once found, Jewell James engages a commercial logging company to take down the tree and move it to the House of Tears carving site on the reservation.
Then the long, painstaking process of turning the tree into a totem begins by peeling the bark from the log, a task that takes many hours because, James says, “the bark sticks to the drying log as if it was glued on.”
Next, he and his volunteers remove the tree’s inch-thick layer of sapwood, an outer layer of white wood with which the red cedar tree draws nutrients from the earth. After chipping away the sapwood, James shapes the eventual totem pole. He takes care to remove all rough spots and protrusions, which makes the log uniformly smooth and cylindrical.
That done, the next steps are to choose the totem’s front and a back side. The carvers then cut the back side into a flat surface, which enables the totem pole to stand upright. Stretching a string the length of the pole from top to bottom, James establishes a centerline.
James and his carvers are now ready to divide the pole into segments and begin etching out the story of the NLM totem pole within the wood of the red cedar.