A totem pole carved by the Lummi Nation House of Tears Carvers is set to make its way to Washington D.C. this summer, presented in August to the Biden Administration before taking its place in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. But first it will make several stops around Whatcom County and the Pacific Northwest.
Spiritual guide and head carver Jewell Praying Wolf James, whose Lummi name is Se-Sealth, is clear-eyed about the significance of the totems he and the carvers create. While the totem is a three-dimensional, revered product of their efforts, it’s the opportunity for a creation of connectedness the totem inspires that’s the true sacredness the carvers strive to achieve.
“The totem is not what is sacred,” says Jewell. “It’s what it brings together that is sacred.” He has created an artist’s statement that explains his philosophy and the figures used in the totem.
Regarding the actual carving of the log, Jewell explains, “We hollow out the back of the tree, its heart, because that is where the pressure is in a log, just like in people.”
Jewell, his brother Douglas James, their carving team, and other Lummi and Native American members, leaders and organizations throughout the country have collaborated to organize Red Road to DC, taking their most recent totem—a 24-foot, 8-inch pole carved out of a 400-year-old red cedar—on an epic journey that will end at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The journey will stop at sacred sites and other locations to receive blessings and connect hearts and spirits along the way. The totem—the brainchild of Lummi leader, Sul ka dub (also called Freddie Lane), as a gift to the Biden administration, and the first ever totem to be presented to an American President—has evolved through open hearts and intertwined spirits to represent the need to bring awareness, protection, and attention to the peril of and the promises to Native Americans regarding their sacred lands and the importance those lands have to all Americans.
Sul ka dub proposed the idea to present a totem to the Biden administration, resulting in discussions with other tribes and Native American leaders. Judith LeBlanc, member of the Oklahoma Caddo Indian tribe and director of the Native Organizers Alliance (NOA), became one of the journey’s many supporters. She helped create a statement of the need to protect Native American Sacred Sites.
A collaborative effort between the Lummi Nation, the NOA, the Natural History Museum, and others developed the strategy to set the totem on its journey to Washington, D.C.
Jewell says he created totems to bring awareness, open hearts and open people up to the spirit of connectedness and cooperation for over 43 years. Jewell, his brother and their carving crew have long used skill, spirit and imagination to create and donate totems to bring people together during times of crisis, including the people of New York, Shanksville, PA, and the Pentagon after the 9/11 attack.
Their totems have gone to such distant places as South Africa and there is a current discussion of a swap of totems with Native Hawaiian tribes. In 2018, they carved a totem to help save an Orca whale from captivity. All of the totems are meant to bring people together and create a better understanding of the connectedness and responsibilities we all share with the land and all beings who inhabit it.
Charis Weathers, pastor of Bellingham’s Echoes Church and the transitional pastor of the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Arlington, has worked with the House of Tears Carvers since 2014. She traveled to the carvers’ studio to record interviews with the carvers, and welcomed the totem to the Arlington church.
The schedule of blessings and gatherings around the Pacific Northwest before this most recent totem pole begins its journey is extensive. Ferndale Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Anya Milton worked with Chairman of the Lummi Business Council, Lawrence Solomon, and other equity and social justice groups, such as Connect Ferndale, to bring the totem to the chamber to nurture community connections.
Bellingham’s stop on the journey will take place May 24th at the Port of Bellingham. The totem pole, according to the Facebook page detailing the event, “will be available for county residents to attend and have an opportunity to lay hands on the totem pole and imbue it with their grief, their prayers and their hopes. There will be local speakers, musicians, artisans, and a blessing by interfaith representatives.”