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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Indian Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Tsimshian or Haida
Totem Pole
Red Cedar & Paint, 80” Height, c.1870

This is an example of a monumental totem pole scaled down to a smaller size.

The smallest traditional sculptures to contain this degree of detail were goat horn spoon handles, usually about seven to nine inches long. This totem pole illustrates one of the grand characteristics of Northwest Coast art: the ability to successfully change scale at will, from huge to tiny and all in between, with no true loss of monumentality. Without something to reference for scale, it’s impossible to tell from a photo just how large or small this or other sculptures in the Michaan Collection actually are.

The refinement of this carving dramatically illustrates the evolved state of totemic art in that period of time. Few full-sized totem poles of the early nineteenth century featured this level of sensitively modeled sculpture, with nearly full-rounding of limbs and subtle detail in the human and animal faces. These kinds of skills evolved more quickly in small-scale carvings, which allowed a great deal of sculptural experimentation and development in a very short time per carving. Over the course of the nineteenth century, these advanced skills were then translated back into the larger-scale work from which it all had evolved in the beginning.

The figures on this pole are carved in a style that suggests the artist could have been either Haida or Tsimshian, as it displays characteristics of both carving traditions. A small bear crouches at the top of the pole, perched on the corona of a sun-rimmed thunderbird face. There once was a beak attached at its center, which extended the sculptural depth of the original log from which this was carved. Beneath the thunderbird-in-sun image sits a man with his knees drawn up to his chest, his hands clasped before them.

These figures illustrate characters in the clan histories and mythologies that are the foundation of the northern Northwest Coast social system.

Below the man is a raven or similar straight-beaked bird, its wings wrapped about itself and beak against its breast. The two-dimensional carving on the raven’s wings indicate by their style that this is not an early carving, but one most likely created in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. At the base of the pole is a large bear, crouched in what is often called the hocker position, with the head and forelegs of a large frog protruding from its downturned mouth with feet resting on the bear’s forelegs.

The original purpose of this totem is not known. It may have been carved for a Native home during the transition from large communal plank houses to small, single-family dwellings based on movement to a Euro-American model which was implemented by missionaries and government agents. This radical change in dwelling style was intended to separate native people from their past and to accelerate an acculturation process desired and enforced by the dominant culture. A smaller heraldic pole outside such a home may have passed the anti-cultural scrutiny of zealous Indian agents.


Exhibited: Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme
Pinacothèque de Paris, 2008