Harvey Davis/Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection/Museum of History and Industry
Joseph Hillaire works on a friendship pole for Kobe, Japan in 1961. The pole, which represents the Sister City relationship between Seattle and Kobe, still stands in a park in Kobe.

Culture Bearers: 5 Carvers Who Kept Northwest Coast Carving Alive, Part 2

Richard Walker

From the late 1800s until 1934 in the U.S. and 1951 in Canada, the potlatch—the great system of celebration, honoring, witnessing, and wealth redistribution—was banned in an effort to kill indigenous cultural ways. Potlatch-related activities, such as carving, were banned. Authorities confiscated regalia. People who went to potlatches were arrested and jailed. And yet, the cultural ways survived.

Among those who defied the unjust laws of the time were the artists who continued to carve regalia masks, house posts, great totem poles, and sea- and ocean-going canoes. Here’s a list of some of the carvers and their artistic heirs whose legacy is a culture that is living and thriving. This list is by no means complete.

Joseph Hillaire, Lummi (1894-1967) Hillaire’s art built bridges of understanding between peoples, and bridges of friendship between nations.

His Setting Sun Dancers still carry on Lummi songs and dances. He was instrumental in reviving the Lummi Stommish Water Festival; the 68th annual event was held this year. His knowledge of Lummi culture informed anthropologist Erna Gunther, curator of the Northwest Coast Native exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. And he traveled throughout the U.S. and to Japan, fostering inter-cultural friendships and bringing attention to Native culture.

Hillaire carved two story poles for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair—one to tour the United States to promote the fair and Northwest heritage, and one for Seattle’s sister city, Kobe, Japan. The touring pole was taken to 300 cities and towns before it was returned to Seattle for the opening of the fair. It stood at the nearby Port Madison Indian Reservation until 2008, when it was relocated to the Lummi Reservation. The other pole still stands in a park in Kobe.

In 2013, the University of Nebraska Press published A Totem Pole History: The Work of Lummi Carver Joe Hillaire, by his daughter, Pauline.


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