What is more iconic than a totem pole? If you have not seen one in person, this is a must-have experience. It is not every day you see one in N.M. A totem pole is often defined as a carved wooden pole/structure that is made in commemoration of history, people, places and cultural stories that are important and to be remembered. These traditional Indigenous monuments come from a Northwestern/Pacific Northwest United States tribal heritage. The House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation has specifically made its goal for over two decades to make totems that can be used to gain attention to community and environmental issues. Their totems have traversed the country and even Asia. This year the totem will be sent to stand in Washington D.C. as a reminder to President Biden and the Interior Department folk alike that this is still Native Land.
The 24-foot-tall, 5,000-pound totem pole is carved from a 400-year-old western red cedar tree. The images it holds symbolize the challenges facing the Earth and her people. And it highlights the issues that are currently the most important among Native people: environmental change and destruction. This journey is meant to bring attention to communities leading efforts to protect sacred places under threat from resource extraction and industrial development. The totem pole honors, unites and empowers communities working to protect sacred places around North America.
Julia Bernal is the director of the Pueblo Action Alliance and is helping coordinate the Southwestern portion of this journey. The Paper. asked her to explain what we will see later this month. “Their journey starts from the Lummi Nation in Washington to several different places: Snake River, Bears Ears, Chaco. They are going to go to Standing Rock, White Earth, Minnesota, and then eventually make their way down to Washington D.C. The initial goal is for this totem pole to be delivered to the Biden administration, to essentially remind him that Indigenous people are still here. We’re still protecting our sacred places and cultural landscapes. And that we, as a collective of Indigenous people, also support the demands and struggles from each community.”
The journey of a totem pole is often what makes it a meaningful and sacred element. Because as each totem makes its way from the carver’s hands to the place it will stand, along that journey it finds itself touched, blessed and wished well. It carries those thoughts and prayers and intentions with it. That’s what makes the journey so special. As Freddie Lane, Lummi Nation member, explains on the tribe’s website, “As the totem pole moves, it carries with it the spirits of the lands it visits. It’s like a battery that charges as it travels. As people touch it, they give it power. As it moves on, it shares that power with the next community it visits. The totem pole draws lines of connection between communities fighting for the land and for the future.”
Julia Bernal added, “Like the carvers I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now, and they’ve taken totem poles all across [the nation], all over the place. I think they even started in response to September 11. That was the first journey in 2001. So a lot of the purpose of this totem pole is to collect a lot of that sacred energy that is crossing across each of these cultural landscapes. And in one of the videos, they were stating that when people touch it and put their good intentions on it, that totem carries a well of that good energy throughout, you know? Throughout the youth. And so I think the goal behind this is to have that collective energy of all these different sacred places that those Indigenous and frontline communities are working so hard to protect. And take that to the administration and reminded them that those people are still here.”
Locally, the big fights for conservation have been in two major places: Bears Ears, Utah, and Chaco Canyon, N.M. Chaco Canyon and the Chaco Culture National Historical Park itself is a protected area that houses a collection of kivas and other structures that were built centuries ago by the ancestors of the local tribes. The site is deemed sacred to many. But the area around Chaco is under massive oil and gas development. Over 90 percent of the available land for oil and gas leasing has been leased. Fracking not only disturbs these structures but also causes serious health and environmental issues for the people that reside in this rural area. The Chaco Withdrawal Protection Act may be re-introduced soon. But this only protects federal land holdings on this checkerboard landscape. As of right now, the Biden Administration’s moratorium on federal lands oil drilling is in effect. Tribes and local activists are hoping this becomes permanent by legislation.
Bears Ears. This absolute hidden gem of a National Monument was basically divided up at the behest of the oil and gas industry. In 2017 the Trump administration issued an executive proclamation that modified Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by replacing it with two smaller monuments. This unheard-of action eliminated 1.2 million acres of protected lands and made them available for oil and gas lease. This is currently the largest rollback of federally protected lands in American history. Hopi Tribe v. Donald J. Trump still is still set to be heard, but many are hoping Interior Department Secretary Haaland will reinstate the original land holdings, making the lawsuit against Trump a moot point.
These are the two places close to home that need protection immediately. If you have a chance to make it please do! Send some good vibes and intentions out into the world, carried by this totem pole to the rest of America. Also, for the youth and yourself, if you have not ever seen a totem pole close up, go check it out! We don’t get totem poles often in the Southwest.
The Lummi Nation totem begins its journey on July 14 and will pass through Chaco Canyon on July 18. To track their journey and learn more about the artists go to redroadtodc.org.