Friday, 4 January 2013

Totems for Dummies: building my family totem pole.

Sometimes people ask if I have First Nations blood.  I would like to say yes, because their culture had a fair few things figured out which ours is sadly lacking. No, I am of the mad Caucasion persuasion.  My mum's family is from somewhere near the Black Sea in the Ukraine. My dad's family is from a place on the border between France and Germany, which goes some way toward explaining this insatiable urge to invade myself and then surrender.

I'm a Canadian of European heritage, living in Pole-land, BC.(Museum of Anthropology, UBC)
This modern world of ours is sort of broken, don't you think? 

Maybe the best way forward is if we take a step back and re-evaluate our priorities. Many First Nation traditions make perfect sense because they are expressions of the understanding that we are all connected.  This is important to me because it reiterates and reinforces my minuscule and profoundly limited understanding of each relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory. 

 It's good to heed a message when the universe sends it to you from various different directions - it's a sign that there's some truth in it. Did you know that everyone has animal totems? They're akin to Joseph Campbell's mythical heroes and Carl Jung's archetypes.  Many cultures use animal totems. They're tools which offer valuable insight into the human psyche. 

(These totems are one of the most photographed places in BC -Stanley Park)
On Haida Gwaii, totem poles are address markers.  It's like a family crest of sorts, a sign telling you which family, or clan, lives where.  It's a giant, family-tree sign-post. 

(Museum of Anthropology, UBC)
The various totems associated with a clan are stacked one on top of the other all the way up the pole.  

My family tree is stacked with nuts, but I still want to know what our pole would look like. We're probably some crazy kind of curly willow, all loopy and twisted... or maybe our pole is even a monument to blatant consumerism, à la:

Le Totem des Hermés, s'il vous plait.
Whatever it ends up looking like, I wanted to uncover my totems and delve into the archetypes near and dear to my psyche, so we set off on an urban Vision Quest.

In the Arctic Inukshuks stand out for miles around.  In Vancouver, they are well camouflaged  in amongst the high-rises.

In Canada's high north, up north of the Arctic Circle, Inukshuks are a sort of pre-GPS way-finding totem. Water is ubiquitous up there; the world is more water than land in most places.  The horizon giiiiiiiinormous, so you can see the Inukshuk from miles away.  You can literally see forever looking into the skies sometimes, and then virtually nothing at all when the weather closes in a short while later.  That's why the Inuit language has a multitude of different ways to express distance and direction, and it's also why an Inukshuk is such an important cultural icon in Canada's far north. 

 The Inukshuk lets travellers know both where they are, and which way to go. It's also a rest stop of sorts.  Many travellers would find supplies between the legs of an Inukshuk to aid them along on their way, and in return they would leave what payment they could. It was an honour system which worked because of that understanding that we are all connected. 

Inukshuks are always a welcome sign.

I spoke with a local Chief.  The man pours sweat-lodges for some of Vancouver's First Nations people, and he said that we usually know our totems when we consider which animals we have an affinity for, which animals we hold fear around, and those animals we have had significant contact or conflict with.  He said to look for signs and symbols from the Animal Kingdom, and so the man and I set off on my journey of discovery.

(I wonder if  this is what the Chief was referring to: my strange fear of green bugs on fern fiddle-heads.)
Aaaaand wouldn't you know it? Check out the first creatures we encountered on our journey.
I had a giggle over this gaggle:

It's true, too.
I've always been a bit of a silly Canada goose.

Serendipitously, one kind soul gave the small boy a book called Animal Speak, because he loves anything with a face.  The book explores the symbolism in various totems, and all of the archetypes we associate them with.  I looked up the goose to discover it is the writer's totem. (It's the quill thing.) That's where the storytelling old Mother Goose comes from. As you can imagine, that went over rather well with my ego: :D 

The goose is also a symbol of fidelity and fecundity.  I like that word, fecundity.  The bit in the middle reminds me of one of my favourite things. 

I'm happy owning my inner goose. 

And yes, there's some truth in our next encounter, too, at least every once in a while.

Claws and Effect. (Museum of Vancouver)
 Back in my university days I traded services (non tax-deductible) with a a woman who makes these really pretty pictures of how the sky looked the moment you were born.  It's a circle with points which connect and intersect to create rather beautiful shapes. She says my moon is in Cancer, which must be why I sometimes get crabby every several weeks.  (Dr Hal says that particular  brand of periodic crabbiness is often a simple B6 deficiency, and he has this marvellous little concoction of B vitamins which makes all that nonsense simply vanish.  You see why I love my naturopath, right?  The man's happy with him, too... ;)

Where were we?  Oh yeah, the totem quest.
Round the next bend, and what did we find?

Nothing less than an eagle overlooking the Kits Point bike park.  That seemed note-worthy, somehow.  

The boy's book had a huge section on eagles, but it had an awful lot of words, so I just looked at the pictures.  You've gotta love the pretty birds.

Did you know that eagles are such efficient hunters that they have enough time in their lives to do things just for fun?  It's true.  When I lived in White Rock, one of my favourite things to do was to ride to the top of the  bluff on the south western tip of the Semihamoo Peninsula, because the eagles would convocate to surf the up-drafts blasting off the steep slopes of the cliff.  They definitely play. There's likely a higher purpose behind it, but no matter.  Their smiles are plastered all over their body language.  

There must be a guiding, life-enriching principle in there somewhere.

Eagle medicine touches something deep inside of all of us, doesn't it?  It certainly seems to play a significant role in our cultural psyche here in North America, at any rate.

And what of the wolf?  I am definitely an old horn dog. Bit ruff around the edges, if you will. And I like doggy style once in a while, too, so it must be one of my totems.  For sure.  And you know my pole has got to have some beavers on it.  I expect a happy clam will show up somewhere, too, and maybe a couple of tasty oysters like the kind we indulged in at Joe Fortes that day.  Oh!  And a pussy.  There has to be a pussy on my pole. There's a big black neighbourhood cat which is trying to take over the house and rule our lives, and surely that counts toward totem-hood.  

It makes me happy, just thinking of all the gorgeous creatures on my totem pole.

It's just like going to my happy place.
This isn't my happy place.   I can't show my happy place here, but this is a pretty happy-looking place, don't you think?  Again, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

Oh, and I found the perfect foundation for my towering pole.  As soon as I saw it I knew I had to have two.

Just imagine...

You get the picture.
I can't wait to erect my pole!

No, sorry. I'm not likely to ever grow up.  
With neither sign nor symptom of maturity, even after this many innings,
it's just not going to happen.

I'm good with that, too.

More to the point: we're definitely on to something here. You'd know for sure it was my house if you paddled by that particular pole, wouldn't you? 

This whole totem thing is going to make redundant that old, ridiculous, messy postal-code system that nobody ever liked anyway.  

You see?


  1. I love your blog! I am from the united states I am native american french and scandinavian. I like the post.

  2. Great post babble! Picture #4 is my favorite. I love the subject although I'm just a dirty white boy of German and a tad of Irish decent.

    There is very little evidence of Native American culture left around my neck of the woods but a couple summers ago we visited an interesting site Great Serpent Mound

    It was a very cool experience to visit the area. The energy was palatable. We were camping at the time so it was a thought provoking day right up to sitting around the campfire at the days end.

  3. ...the 'silliness' you banter about with, at least from my point of view, is in direct diametrical opposition to the depth & intrigue you bring to so many subjects near & dear to your heart...
    ...being somewhat of the same nature, even if i'm not always in agreement with every aspect you present, i could never fault your behavior...i love it...

    ...i'm glad you wrote this most who'll likely respond, i have no 'first nation' in my blood but in appreciating her beauty & sometimes terror & yet always sensing a heartfelt affinity with this earth, i've always tried to align my thoughts & understanding with those who, from the beginning were most in tune with just what this earth offers us...

    ...hopefully, we'll all take away something of value from this post & give it back somewhere it matters & for what i received, i say thank you...

  4. Babble,
    At least you resisted the urge to call it a Scrotum Pole.


    1. Yeah, but only because I didn't think of it...

  5. BEST BLOG EVER. It was anthropological, mystical, animal, cultural, bicyc-al, comical, and horny! Wow.