I believe hands are one of the most intriguing and useful body parts. They serve as the catalyst for immense emotions ranging from pleasure to pain, from soft caresses to violent beatings, and for some people the subtle and tactile movement of hands transforms ordinary images or pieces of wood into artistic masterpieces. During my trip to Alaska last year, I encountered a group of Native totem carvers. I knew almost nothing about totem poles before I visited the small town of Ketchikan, but it was there that I met with a local carver who explained the important role these poles play in Native traditions. I've already shown you the handsome carver. Perhaps you remember him?
1. In this post, I asked you to guess where this cutie lives. Many people guessed that he's Scottish, some fancied him Irish, and a few even thought we are related, perhaps that he's my brother. :) His name is Donny Varnell and he comes from the indigenous Haida nation. Haida natives live in the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Their territories lie in both Canada and the USA, including the southernmost Alaska Panhandle, where I met Donny. His totem work can be seen all over the world. He studied visual arts at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and apprenticed under Master Carvers from various tribes.
2. He works in a small space in the Saxman Village in Ketchikan. The Haida are well-renowned for their artistic creations, and Donny's grandmother is a famous basket weaver, recognized as a national living treasure in Alaska. Apprentice carvers can earn up to $1,000 per foot, experienced carvers earn about $5,000 per foot and Master Carvers dictate any price, and people will pay it. The totem poles still play an integral role in Alaskan culture.
3. Many have the mistaken belief that the totem poles are religious symbols. However, they are used to preserve historical records, portray cultural stories and identify clans. Totem carvers are trained in local mythology, in a very intense way that has been compared to a shaman's training in healing rituals. They must pass extensive exams before they can begin carving. The geometric patterns, animals and human images carved into the poles always have a literal and metaphorical meaning, carefully chosen to serve as visual manifestations of thousands of years of rich oral history.
4. One interesting fact I learned - inanimate objects are never carved into totem poles. This restriction is meant to honor life in its full, animate, dynamic circle - including respect for the giant red cedar trees that are most often chopped and sacrificed to serve as the canvas for the totem carvings. Once the totem is carved, it will never be removed or chopped down. Depending on size, and they are usually huge, they can last 60 - 80 years, and stand in place until they eventually rot, fall down or decay, thus allowing nature to take its intended course. The totems are spread throughout the town of Ketchikan, standing beside street lights, stop signs and placed in town squares. Over 80 varities of totems can be found in a three block radius!
Btw, in the distance you can see an old totem pole with Abe Lincoln at the top. Why is one of the tallest U.S. Presidents portrayed as a short man? The photos the carvers used as artistic guidance depicted Lincoln wearing his iconic long coat and the carvers thought he had short legs. :))
5. In the early days, there was a very unique tradition with totem paint. Women were responsible for chewing salmon eggs and spitting out the oil to use as the base of the mixture for red paint. They would spit through their front teeth, using them as a strainer. In 2015, carvers simply drive to the hardware store to buy the paint. :)
6. I'm not sure if totem poles can be found anywhere in Russia. My research disclosed only one crazy story, symbolic of "spiritual" Russia. In 2003, in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of beautiful St. Petersburg, the South Korean Embassy gifted Jangseung totem poles to the locals. Such totem poles are often placed at the edges of Korean villages to frighten away demons. However, some Orthodox fanatics considered the poles highly unspiritual and evil and decided to cut them down. In their words "We live in a Christian country and totem poles are not acceptable." The damage was beyond repair, and the totems can't be restored. Pity for my beloved and favorite Russian city! Perhaps these gopniks should have read my report first, to understand that totem poles have no connection to any religion.
7. I've written many times that I believe traditions must be respected and honored, so it was a great pleasure to meet these Alaskan carvers, to learn about their history and dedication to bringing their legends, mythology and cultural heritage to life for people who otherwise would have no knowledge of it.
You can read my other Alaska posts here. This is my favorite State in the U.S., a completely different planet when compared to the congested, hectic city life of Washington, DC. A unique and earthy mentality, utmost respect for nature, the land and human survival. If you're ever in Ketchikan, be sure to tell the carvers I said hello. And please ask Donny if he has broken up with his girlfriend. ;)) As I wrote before, my ideal man! Rugged, a bit nerdy, kind, intelligent, good with his hands and incredibly creative! It's a rare combination, difficult to find in one human.
Which body part is most intriguing to you?