The North American Northwest Coast Indians of the past had no written language. How can we know about them or their past culture if they left no books? All they left behind was their material culture, their artifacts, their things. Yet these artifacts are a great legacy for they tell us as much about the culture as a written record. As Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi stated in his book
The Meaning of Things
: “Things embody goals, make skills manifest and shape the identities of their users.” Through the study and analysis of artifacts, students can gain valuable knowledge and insight into the, creators and their culture. Objects are visual records of what their makers considered important or significant, and learning occurs through looking at and analyzing the concrete object. Reciprocally, our own culture speaks or expresses itself through our own objects. It is important that students understand that learning and communicating are not limited to reading and writing. Visual perception and awareness also play a part in the learning process.
To the Northwest Coast Indians, the totem pole provided a means of communicating their stories, myths and legends. The totem pole is an arrangement of symbols or memory devices in sequence created for the purpose of recalling a story or event. These symbols function as a form of “writing”—pictures, not written letters, convey meaning. Further, these stories conveyed symbolically a visual expression of what the Indian culture meant. In our own culture the White House, Plymouth Rock, the Lincoln Memorial are all symbols which “contain” stories each school child knows—and which get evoked, maybe subconsciously, by their mere sight. Just as the story of Betsy Ross and the creation of the flag symbolize the intrinsic idea of freedom to our society, so too do Indian stories represent ideas intrinsic to Indian society.
There are elements within the Northwest Coast Indian culture to which students can relate. The totem pole is one such element. I am eager to use the totem pole to teach my students about another culture through the different approach of object analysis. Totem poles with their overwhelming stature, undulating carvings covered with magnificent symbols full of mystery and intrigue, and subdued colors, strike an impressive pose. Radiating with the excitement of all these elements working together, they stimulate student curiosity and involvement. Totem poles, like Kachina Masks of the Southwest Indians, the Pyramids of Egyptians, or Stonehenge in England, are striking symbols inviting mental inquiry and play, guaranteeing response. As a first step in the lifelong process of making meaning out of objects, students can relate easily to the totem pole because it is a concrete historical system in which each part clearly represents a specific, culturally wellknown event. I want my students to adopt and transfer this Indian system of visual communication to express their own culture.
The study of totem poles as deeply meaningful symbols can lead students to think about the things that are important in their lives, objects which to them represent significant ideas, beliefs, or behaviors. A lesson seeking to relate the study of Indian totem poles to their own cultural symbols might begin with a list: the students would recognize and list what is significant to them. Their lists might include MTV, a video game, Puma sneakers, a football, McDonalds, and a portable radio or “box”. The next step is to translate these verbal lists into visual symbols or keys to express their culture and to recognize what values they represent. My objective is to teach not only that their own culture has validity and its own symbols, but also that their minds are capable of exploring and defining that world given a means of doing so (their own familiar symbols). Employing the totem pole as a model, the students will use their symbols to create “city” totem poles. The objective is to have them experience the pride in creation arising out of seeing their own ideas, thoughts, and efforts come together in the form of a substantial piece of art work.
Designed for middle school art classes grades 6, 7, and 8, the main focus of this unit is to blend successfully, material object study (the totem pole) and analysis (of the culture) with the application of these techniques to our own culture. The ideal first lesson would be a trip to a museum where students could see an actual totem pole. When totem poles are not available, slides and pictures will have to suffice. The important point is to expose students to a culture through the totem pole, which will stimulate their curiosity about that culture.