Old growth, old ways: 'Healing totem' carved from western red cedar makes its way eastA 20-foot-tall healing totem pole loaded on an open flat-bed truck passed through North Dakota this week, receiving blessings from Indian tribes as it makes its way from the West Coast to permanent display near Washington, D.C.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
A 20-foot-tall healing totem pole loaded on an open flat-bed truck passed through North Dakota this week, receiving blessings from Indian tribes as it makes its way from the West Coast to permanent display near Washington, D.C.
The totem and two flanking benches, all carved from western red cedar, will be installed in an herb garden at the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
The carvings will highlight a “Native Voices” exhibit to open Oct. 6, telling of traditional healing methods preserved in tribal lore, including the Algonquin story of the Medicine Woman in the Moon and other Native American myths of health, healing, and peace.
A woman holding a basket near the bottom of the totem represents all the generations of traditional women gatherers of medicinal plants, according to project organizers.
The totem was blessed in ceremonies Monday at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Fort Yates, N.D., and Tuesday at Cankdeska Cikana (Little Hoop) Community College in Fort Totten, N.D., on the Spirit Lake Sioux Reservation. It will visit Mahnomen, Minn., and the White Earth Indian Reservation today.
“It was everything I expected it to be,” said Shieleen Omen, assistant to Little Hoop President Cynthia Lindquist and a participant in early planning for the totem.
“It was amazing to see it,” she said. “It’s too large to erect and display (as it travels), but you are able to see it and touch it. My heart was in it, big time.”
Omen and others at Spirit Lake worked with carvers planning the totem and arranging interviews with traditional Dakota healers in several Northern Plains states about American Indian concepts of illness and health. Recordings of those interviews will be part of the display.
“It was an honor to meet them and work with them and just be in their presence,” Omen said of the elders. “They bring together native culture and traditional native values on health, and this project brings that knowledge of the old ways forward. It’s something that needs to be remembered always, and this is going to do that. It’s going to be forever.”
A website also is planned to provide Internet access to the exhibit.
About 200 students, staff and community members participated in the ceremonies at Little Hoop before members of the Spirit Lake Tribe escorted the traveling crew on an alternate route off the reservation on their way through Grand Forks to Mahnomen.
“It was too windy today to haul such precious cargo around our lake,” Omen said, referring to high winds that caused big waves on Devils Lake.
The carving and painting of totem poles have traditions that go back centuries for some American Indian tribes.
The current healing totem began in 2010 with the selection of a 500-year-old red cedar by Jewell Praying Wolf James, head of the Lummi Indian Nation’s House of Tears Carvers.
According to a website devoted to the totem’s creation (http://nlmtotem.wordpress.com/, James found the old-growth tree in a national forest in the North Cascade mountain range of western Washington.
After James determined it could legally be harvested, he arranged for the tree to be taken down by a commercial logging company and transported to the carving site on the reservation.
There, workers peeled bark from the log and removed an inch-thick layer of sapwood, and James began to shape the totem pole, removing rough spots to make the log smooth and cylindrical. Carvers then divided the pole into segments, etching story symbols into the red cedar.
James encouraged other members of the Lummi Nation, from children to elders, to help with the carving and painting, using both traditional and modern techniques.
The totem received a blessing at the historic Lummi village site of Semiahmoo, 25 miles north of Bellingham, Wash., on Sept. 12 before starting its journey east.
James earlier carved three healing totems to honor victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Also carved from western red cedar, those memorial totems stand today in a forest northwest of New York City, in Shanksville, Pa., and in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.