MOST PEOPLE KNOW that totem poles, the signature artwork of Northwest coastal tribes, use imagery to tell stories. But few among us can grasp the story’s meaning, feel the deep inspiration of the carver — or even know where to start reading the tale.
Case in point: Tsimshian carver David Boxley’s latest vertical masterpiece, a majestic, 27-foot totem raised this spring at the entrance to Northwest Hospital in the Northgate area to honor the life of his recently departed sister-in-law, Cindy Sue James — and the loving care afforded to her there by hospital staff during her final days.
It’s logical to assume that the figure at the pole’s apex — in this case, a broad-winged eagle, representing the eagle clan of the Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska — is the primary inspiration behind the painstaking work to convert an old-growth log to a work of art. It’s true to an extent; James died from uterine cancer, and the pole is a tribute to her bravery.
But Northwest coastal tribal tradition is more nuanced.
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Before speaking at the ceremonial dedication of the pole, dubbed “Eagle’s Spirit,” in early May, Debora Juarez, a Puyallup native, current Seattle City Council member and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, contacted Puget Sound tribal leaders to collect their impressions of Boxley’s design. One of them, Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby, told her that understanding the pole’s iconography required turning nonnative cultural norms upside-down.
“Leaders, women, are always at the bottom of a totem pole — holding the people up,” Cladoosby told her. Other tribal leaders echoed the sentiment, noting that the Eurocentric interpretation of someone “at the bottom of the totem pole” carries a derogatory meaning.
Not so in the minds of carvers, past or present. Boxley, one of the most active and honored totem pole-carvers alive, said he placed his sister-in-law exactly where she belonged: as a literal foundation for her family and people.
This is why “Eagle’s Spirit” is anchored to Mother Earth by a representation of James. The “signature dimples” on the carved figurine give a hint of her effervescence to visitors and patients at the hospital that James believed deserved honor for its treatment of the suffering and the disabled — particularly those struck by cancer.
In her stylized depiction on the pole, Boxley has left James, a local accountant, standing in immortality securely but tenderly clutching the…