The Lummi Healing Totem Pole Carries Stories of Traditional Medicines and Practices
The Lummi healing totem pole represents the need to protect indigenous knowledge for future generations
On September 12, Jewell Praying Wolf James strapped his 20-foot cedar healing totem pole to a flatbed truck bound for the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. His three-week, cross-country journey began with a blessing at the Lummi Indian Reservation in northwestern Washington. “We’re stopping at nine different Indian reservations, and the tribes are praying for the protection of our children, our communities and our elders, and generally helping us move along with the idea that we all need to unite and protect the knowledge that we have, and respect each other,” James said from Syracuse, New York two weeks later.
James designed and carved the healing totem pole with the help of the House of Tears Carvers, which he and three other carvers founded years ago to give Native people the opportunity to “experience the making of totem art.” He recalled a touching display of love he received at the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. “There were these little kids, they were so small they had to hold each other’s hands so they wouldn’t fall over,” said James. “They sang us a traveling song…. And one elder with all these little babies was drumming a travel song for us. It was fantastic.”
James pulled into Bethesda October 1, and The National Library of Medicine (NLM) installed the colorful, elaborately carved healing pole and two benches in its herb garden on October 2 as a tribute to the traditional medicines and healing practices of the continent’s First Peoples. The NLM commissioned the healing pole for “Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness,” a free exhibition which opened to the public October 6.
“As an artist, you always look at your work and wish you had done something differently,” James said after he returned home, “but, you know, we had a lot of people—from age 7 to 82—help us with the pole. And after it was installed, I looked at it and said, ‘You know, we did real good.’”
The pole is a beautiful work of Northwest Coast Native art, but James hopes it will also be appreciated as a call to action, an urgent reminder that indigenous peoples must protect their traditional medicines and healing practices from cultural contamination and commercial exploitation.
No better place to erect that reminder than the NLM, the world’s largest biomedical library whose online resources are accessed by health professionals, scientists and the public more than one billion times a year. “The National Library of Medicine is a part of the National Institute of Health, and they pretty much register almost all the studies important to the medical field in the United States. And one of the areas that has been really ignored is the healing practices of Indian country,” James says. “One of the concerns we’ve been voicing in our relationship with the National Library of Medicine is the need to make Indian country aware that it’s their responsibility to make sure they know how to protect their traditional knowledge, traditional medicines and traditional healing practices. We know that we have preserved it as best we can and try to keep it from being contaminated by other cultures and religious beliefs that have infiltrated a lot of ceremonies.
“Traditional medicines, as you know, are important to Indian country but it’s also of great interest to the pharmaceutical business. Around the world, Native people are being confronted by pharmaceutical companies searching for new medicines, so we have to be aware of how to protect ourselves from exploitation. You have copyright laws, patents. There’s a big question about information that is normal to a traditional community, and who has the right to distribute that information. We need to make sure Indian country has informed consent when dealing with any corporation that comes to meet with them.”
The pole, carved from a 500-year-old red cedar harvested from a forest near the Lummi reservation, depicts stories about how indigenous people “appreciate the environment and how the environment provides food and medicines,” said James, a long-time leader of the Lummi Indian Nation and an activist who has fought to preserve ancient cedar forests in the Pacific Northwest.
At the pole’s base is a woman with a basket, representing a traditional gatherer of food and medicinal plants. The crosshatching in the basket resembles the pattern in many traditional cedar baskets of the Pacific Northwest. “We put a white shell necklace on her because we had some Navajo adults working with us in creating it,” James said. “We wanted to honor the Navajo Nation by putting the necklace on her to remind people that the Navajo Nation has great creation myths.”
Midway up the pole is the tree of knowledge, its green branches reaching out to a blue raindrop-filled sky and its roots digging into the brown earth.
Medicine Woman in the Moon, based on an Algonquin teaching about a traditional healer who knew how to cure most illnesses, tops the pole. She is meditating by her fire, her walking stick and cat nearby, waiting on the Great Spirit for an answer to a question.
Two benches with 8-inch-thick carved backs accompany the pole. One bench represents the raven releasing the sun. “The other one is the moon and the bear and the salmon; it’s part of our salmon-woman mythology,” James said. The benches are painted in black, red, white and yellow, representing the four human races.
Twenty-seven people worked for five months on the healing pole, and they finished just a day before it was loaded onto the flatbed to begin its three-week journey to Bethesda. The next day, about 200 people gathered in Seattle’s Fisher Plaza for a blessing ceremony on September 13 before James and his entourage got onto Interstate 90 for the journey east. The site was particularly significant for James, whose ancestral uncle was Chief Seattle, the Duwamish-Suquamish leader and the first signer of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.
Northwest Indian College Vice President David Oreiro said NLM researchers have a key role in addressing health care disparities and inequities in Indian country. “This pole provides a reminder to all who see it of the existence of the American Indian tribes and the great connections to the land we have and the trust responsibility of the government to assist tribal people in areas relating to the longstanding health care problems, disproportionate statistics and lower life expectancy and preventable diseases such as diabetes, tuberculosis, cancer and alcoholism,” he said.
Kauila Clark, a traditional healer from the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center in Oahu, blessed the carvers, the travelers, the witnesses and the healing pole. He dipped a ti leaf into a koa bowl, and sprinkled fresh water mixed with sea salt—the fresh water for life, sea salt for health. Walking around the pole, Clark even sprinkled the inside of the truck where James and other drivers would sit on the journey east.
Then Northwest Medicine Horse, big-drum singers from the Yakama Nation, sang a blessing song for safe travel. James says the blessings and traveling songs are strong medicine. “One of the first traveling songs I heard was over in Yakama Nation back in 1979 when we were testifying before the treaty commission for the United Nations, and they sang an honoring song, a traveling song to protect us. I was up day and night, day and night, day and night, writing that testimony. I was so tired. I was driving elders [to the hearing] and that song kept me awake just till outside of Bellingham, where one of the others took over the driving. And man, I collapsed, right out. As soon as that song left my mind, I went out. I’ve always believed in these journey songs that they sing, that they add strength to you, keep you awake and aware.”
The Seattle ceremony provided a glimpse into what visitors to the “Native Voices” exhibition will experience. Using works of art and interactive media, Native peoples “speaking in their own voices” tell how epidemics, federal legislation, loss of land, and inhibition of culture affect the health of Native individuals and communities today. “The exhibition presents a contemporary story about renaissance, recovery, and self-determination, and how the Native Peoples of the U.S. use traditional and Western methods to enhance wellness,” according to an NLM brochure.
Exhibition topics include the historical and modern role of traditional healing, the relationship of traditional healing and Western medicine in Native communities, cultural and economic issues that affect the health of Native communities, and the work by Native communities and leadership to improve their community and individual health conditions.
The healing pole and its journey were reminiscent of similar journeys James made when he and a cadre of volunteers carved and delivered healing and honoring poles in memory of 9/11 heroes, victims and their children. His empathy for the victims and their children was rooted in his own experience of loss—his two oldest children died in car accidents in the 1990s.
In 2002, James drove a 13-foot healing pole on a flatbed truck from Lummi to Arrow Park, New York, 52 miles north of Ground Zero. Arrow Park is a 477-acre wooded resort where the New York City Fire Department and several foundations have held programs for 9/11 families and recovery workers. The Arrow Park pole is filled with symbolism. It is 13-feet tall, each foot representing an original American colony. Animal images adorn the pole, honoring those who died on 9/11—an eagle for the fathers, a bear for the mothers and a cub for the children. They are painted in black, red, white and yellow, representing the four races of people who lost their lives in the attacks.
In 2003, James delivered an honoring pole to the Shanksville, Pennsylvania site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed after the passengers tried to take control of the hijacked plane. The large pole depicts a bear holding a human being, because, James told National Relief Charities, the passengers “had to have the strength of a bear to do what they did.”
In 2004, his Liberty and Freedom poles were installed in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery, the final resting place for three U.S. presidents and a Cherokee chief. The Liberty pole depicts a female bear with a “grandmother moon” in her abdomen. The Freedom pole depicts a male bear with “grandfather sun.” The 34-foot Sovereignty crossbar joining the two poles has eagles carved on each end, with two sets of seven feathers representing American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed near the Pentagon on 9/11. The female eagle symbolizes peace, and the male symbolizes war.
James says he thinks people are drawn to the 9/11 and NLM healing poles even if they don’t understand them fully. “I think that [for people] red, black, white and yellow, the power of symbols is so strong that it goes unspoken, but we understand. Sometimes we just forgot we understand, and the poles do a kind of awakening of a natural understanding that is inside all of us. No one tells you how to interpret them; you get to interpret them as you see them, based on your own life experience.”
For Native people, he says, “The symbols of Indian country are extremely important and they should be reminding us of our relationship to our ancestors and our culture and the need to protect the knowledge those symbols are relevant to. The symbol, even though it may be depicting a story, inside that story is a part of our cosmology, our understanding of reality. Within that reality is our relationship with nature itself.”
James’ latest healing pole journey was exhaustively documented. The convoy included an NLM film crew, two Northwest Indian College students who filmed the journey for the college, and a writer from the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde. “One of the things we hope to follow up on is making sure that the video that is produced by the National Library of Medicine’s film crew is distributed around Indian country,” James says. “You go out there to places like the National Congress of American Indians, and they have connections with the various intertribal regional organizations. We’d like to get the message out there and challenge the tribes to find some young leadership to get involved in the national and international debates on how to protect our traditional medicines.”
While the NLM exhibition is temporary, James hopes the permanent presence of the healing pole will “remind the library that Indian country heals by making sure there’s a balance between their mind, body and soul, that it takes all three, that we don’t ignore one over the other, that we have to find that inner balance.”