Art of the West Coast

totem

The first people of the Pacific Northwest were carvers of wood. They had lots of big trees to choose from, but the favourite was red or yellow cedar. They cut planks and beams out of it to build their houses, hollowed it out to make canoes, grooved and steamed thin planks to make bent boxes, carved out totem poles, and whittled out of it many other tools and household utensils.

1875 bent-corner box 01

Totem-face

Haisla canoe (UBC-2009)

The symbols they carved or painted on their works often brought to mind tales that explained the world around them. They were excellent story-tellers. Here is a story from a collection of Totem Tales:

The Rain Song

Totem Tales: Indian Stories Indians Told Gathered in the Pacific Northwest, by W.S. Phillips

The Talking Pine nodded in friendly greeting as I got out of the canoe and came up to my usual place at the foot of the great tree:

“Klahowya, T’solo, the wanderer, it is well that you came to-day, for to-day the pines will sing the rain song, and you shall sing with us, for it is a good song and one to know.”

“So be it, Wise One, I will learn the rain song, that I may know it when I am in other lands. It is a good song to know when the air is dry, and you can get no water for your throat. I will learn the rain song of you, Wise One.”

“Come, T’solo, the wanderer, and sit at my feet, where I can spread my arms over you and keep the rain away.

“Now when the wind comes all the pines will sing the wind song and dance the wind dance before they sing the rain song. You know, my friend T’solo, that the wind must always come to help the pines sing, so be not impatient to hear the rain song until the wind can help us.”

So I sat down by the feet of the Talking Pine, and smoked my pipe and waited for the coming of the wind to see the wind dance, and hear the rain song.

Soon the wind came slowly out of the Southwest and the pines began to sing and the wind sang with them. At first, so softly I could scarce hear it, and I asked the Talking Pine, “Do you sing, Wise One?” “Yea, listen,” answered he.

Then I heard the wind song, for it had gathered strength as all the pines began to sing, and I could hear it very plainly. Then the pines all began to dance and to swing their long arms in time with the song, and to sway and sing until they were all mad with the dance, and I thought they would fall.

The song was wild and mournful, as it always is, and they sing it in the language of the pines, so one must know their talk to learn the words they sing.

I heard them calling the rain to come out from behind the clouds and sing with them. Then the rain rode down with the wind, and some rested on the pines, but most of it went on down and sung with the flowers and the grass; for the rain, you know, is restless and cannot stay long in one place.

The pines all love the rain and always sing the rain song when they see it coming in the clouds, so it will stop and sing with them.

For a long time the pines and the rain sung together, then the rain went away, and the wind went with it, and the pines were left all alone.

The wind, you know, is never tired, and travels all the time, so the pines always call the wind to help them dance, and they always go to sleep when the wind goes away, and the sun wraps his warm blanket around them.

“It was a good dance,” said the Talking Pine, when they had finished and the wind had gone. “Come again, T’solo, the wanderer, and I will show you other things, and sing other songs, but now I sleep.”

Then I got in my canoe and crossed the Lake of the Mountains, and left the Talking Pine to sleep out his sleep until another time.

Activity: It is fun to learn how to carve wood, but if you are just a beginner, it may be better to start with something a little softer. First choice would be carving an apple head: Applehead Doll. If you want something a little more challenging, you could try carving soap. Have fun! If you don’t want to try carving, maybe you would like to draw a picture from the Totem Tale.

Here are a few contemporary Canadian wood artists to be inspired by: Coast Raven Native ArtRobinson CookBob Whitehead

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