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Time For New Images
by Joan Vastokas

HILARY STEWART`s books on the art and cultures of the Northwest Coast have had tremendous popular success. As an illustrator as well as author, she has received awards and acclaim. Most successful to date has been her booking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast (1979), with more than 100,000 copies in print. She has done much to promote appreciation among the public for the cultures of British Columbia`s First Nations. Totem Poles provides yet another popular introduction, this time to the monumental cedar poles of the coastal peoples of British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. The book aims to satisfy the curiosity of "perplexed" visitors to the coast from all parts of the world, who want to know about the poles still standing, restored, or newly carved: "What are they and what do they mean? " To do so, Stewart has visited each of the 113 standing poles - illustrated in the form of black-and-white line drawings - herself. Two introductory chapters discuss the land and its people, the "history" of the poles, the various types of totem poles, the carving and raising of the poles, the "meaning" of the various images and artefacts depicted on the cedar monuments, and the legends that belong to these animal representations. This introductory material concludes with a brief account of the stylistic differences between and among the poles of the different tribal groups along the coast. The third chapter, Part 3, which constitutes the bulk of the volume, lists the 113 poles, their location, the carver, and the "cultural style" to which each belongs, whether Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, or Kwakiutl. Each pole is drawn to scale by the author (there are few photographs of poles), and each is accompanied by an account, usually a page in length, giving the history of each pole`s carving or restoration, the names of the carvers and the families involved, and a description of the pole`s representations. A list of "selected readings" is provided at the end. Despite the fact that this book will likely have the same commercial success as Stewart`s earlier publications, this reviewer wonders how many "introductory" volumes about totem poles we need. The present work is distinctive in so far as it functions as a compendium of poles actually standing today, but there is nothing really new in the book, no original insights into the history, analysis, or interpretation of totem poles that earlier publications have not already addressed. As in the case of her earlier work, Totem Poles is based to a large extent upon a selection of publications by other authors. Even so, the book neglects to take into account much of the extant literature relevant to the spiritual, religious, mythological, and ceremonial significance of the poles within Northwest Coast Indian culture. Moreover, the book provides little sense of long-term coastal history and prehistory, nor does it examine the reasons for the uniquely monumental development of the pole on the Northwest Coast. These are all questions that the public may ask; there is no account of what the differences might have been in totem-pole carving over time. For too long, publications on Native art have been guilty of neglecting the historical dimension. Even though Totem Poles is aimed at a popular audience, it seems to this reviewer that an author`s responsibility to that audience is not to provide minimal or "selected" data, but to communicate in ordinary language all the available information and understanding on the subject. For example, totem poles are not unique to the Northwest Coast. Although the poles are the most elaborate and the largest in scale on the Northwest Coast, they are deeply rooted in the history, religion, and ritual practices of Native North America as a whole. In fact, the pole belongs to a tradition so old that poles with related images and meanings were once erected in the Old World, not only in Siberia, but even in Europe. Like many authors who write popular works, Stewart tends to underestimate the "public." Few Canadians or even foreigners today are "perplexed" about totem poles, which have become stereotypical artefacts of Indian culture, signs denoting "Indianness," to the point that they have been adopted in many non-Northwest Coast contexts, both Native and non-Native. Today they are a popular item in tourist shops everywhere in Canada, available in wood, plastic, and even in the form of wax candies. This dissemination and cross-cultural diffusion is an important phenomenon untouched by Stewart. And, it seems to me, the popularity of the pole as an iconic image of Indian culture argues against the premise of the book that the cedar pole is an enigmatic form to the visitor. There seems to prevail an insularity of mind and a superficiality in much popular, and academic, writing about Native culture in Canada. One senses too much satisfaction with easy pleasantries and, as well, a confinement to borders in the actual as well as the metaphoric sense, that hinders in-depth insight and understanding about ourselves and about history -in particular Native history. Rarely do we push beyond the known limits, rarely do we seek to transcend precedence and comfortable knowledge. But until we put Canadian art and history, both Native and colonial, into a wider geographical and deeper historical context, we will continue to get repetitious and superficial accounts and interpretations of who we are, where we come from, and what we mean.

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