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Totemism And Totemic Spirits

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The ceremonies of the tribes of the North-West fall into two classes, following their social and ceremonial organization. The social division into clans, which are matrilinear and exogamic in the north, while patrilinear or mixed systems prevail in the south, finds outward expression in totemic insignia and in ceremonial representations of the myths narrating the beginnings of the septs. These origins are ascribed to an ancestor who has been initiated by animal-beings into their mysteries, or dances, thus conferring upon him the powers of the initiating creatures; the animals themselves are not regarded as ancestral, nor are the members of the clan akin to the totemic being, except in so far as they possess the powers and practise the rites obtained through the ancestral revelation. The manner of revelation is precisely that in which the Indian everywhere in North America acquires his guardian or tutelary, his personal totem: in fast or trance the man is borne away by the animal-being, taken perhaps to the lodge of its kind, and there given an initiation which he carries back to his people. The distinctive feature of the North-Western custom, however, is that a totem so acquired may be transmitted by inheritance, so that a man's lineage may be denoted by such a series of crests as appears upon the totem-poles' Correspondingly, the number and variety of totemic spirits become reduced, animals or mythic beings of a limited and conventionalized group forming a class fixed by heredity. Yet the individual character of the totem never quite disappears; what is transmitted by birth is the right to initiation into the ancestral mysteries; without this ceremony the individual possesses neither the use of the crest nor knowledge of its myths and songs.

The animal totems of the Tlingit, as given by Boas, are the Raven and the Wolf; of the Haida, the Raven and the Eagle; of the Tsimshian, Raven, Eagle, Wolf, and Bear; of the Heiltsuk Kwakiutl, Raven, Eagle, and Killer Whale; while the Haisla (like the Heiltsuk Kwakiutl of Wakashan stock) have six totems, Beaver, Eagle, Wolf, Salmon, Raven, and Killer Whale. Among the remaining tribes of the region Nootka, Kwakiutl, and Salishan family crests, rather than clan totems, are the marks of social distinction; but even in the north, where the totemic clan prevails, crests vary among the clan families: thus, the families of the Raven clan of the Stikine tribe of the Tlingit have not only the Raven, but also the Frog and the Beaver, as hereditary crests.

In addition to acquisition by marriage and inheritance, rights to a crest may pass from one family or tribe to another through war; for a warrior who slays a foe is deemed to have acquired the privileges of the slain man's totem; if this be one foreign to the conqueror's tribe, slaves may be called upon to give the proper initiation, which is still essential. Thus the rights to certain crests pass from clan to clan and from tribe to tribe, forming the foundation for a kind of intertribal relationship of persons owning like totems. Wars were formerly waged for the acquisition of desired totemic rights, and more than once, the legends tell, bitter conflicts have resulted from the appropriation of a crest by a man who had no demonstrable right to it, for no prerogatives are more jealously guarded in the North-West. Only persons of wealth could acquire the use of crests, for the initiation must be accompanied by feasting and gift-giving at the expense of the initiate and his kindred. On the other hand, the possession of crests is a mark of social importance; hence, they are eagerly sought.

The origin of crests was referred to mythic ancestors. The Haida are divided into Eagles and Ravens. The ancestress of the Raven clan is Foam Woman, who rose from the sea and is said to have had the power of driving back all other super-natural beings with the lightnings of her eyes; Foam Woman, like Diana of the Ephesians, had many breasts, at each of which she nourished a grandmother of a Raven family of the Haida. The oldest crest of this clan is the Killer Whale, whose dorsal fin, according to tradition, adorned the blanket of one of the daughters of Foam Woman; but they also have for crests the Grizzly Bear, Blue Hawk, Sea-Lion, Rainbow, Moon, and other spirits and animals. Curiously enough, the Raven crest among the Haida does not belong to families of the Raven clan, but to Eagles, whose ancestor is said to have obtained it from the Tsimshian. All the Eagles trace their descent from an ancestress called Greatest Mountain, probably denoting a mainland origin of this clan, but the Eagle is regarded as the oldest of their crests. The animals themselves are not held to be ancestors, but only to have been connected in some significant fashion with the family or clan progenitor; thus, an Eagle chief appeared at a feast with a necklace of live frogs, and his family forthwith adopted the frog as a crest.

Many creatures besides animals appear as totemic or family crests, and the double-headed snake (represented with a head at each end and a human head in the middle), known to the Kwakiutl as Sisiutl, is one of the most important of these beings. A Squawmish myth tells of a young man who pursued the serpent Senotlke for four years, finally slaying it; as he did so, he himself fell dead, but he regained life and, on his return to his own people, became a great shaman, having the power to slay all who beheld him and to make them live again a myth which seems clearly reminiscent of initiation rites. The Sisiutl is able to change itself into a fish, whose flesh is fatal to those who eat it, but for those who obtain its super-natural help it is a potent assistant. Pieces of its body, owned by shamans, are powerful medicine and command high prices. The Bella Coola believe that its home is a salt-water lake be-hind the house of the supreme goddess in the highest heaven, and that the goddess uses this mere as a bath. The skin of the Sisiutl is so hard that it cannot be pierced by a knife, but it can be cut by a leaf of holly. In one Bella Coola myth the mountain is said to have split where it crawled, making a passage for the waters of a river. It would appear from these and other legends that the Sisiutl, like the horned Plumed Snake of the Pueblos, is a genius of the waters, perhaps a personification of rain-clouds. A Comox tradition, in many ways analogous to the South-Western story of the visit of the Twin Warriors to the Sun, tells of the conquest of Tlaik, chief of the sky, by the two sons of Fair Weather, and of the final destruction of the sky-chief, who is devoured by the double-headed snake a tale which suggests clearly enough the effacement of the sun by the clouds.

Another being important in clan ritual is the Cannibal woman (Tsonoqoa, Sneneik),whose offspring are represented as wolves, and in whose home is a slave rooted to the ground from eating the food which the demoness gave her. This anthropophagous monster dwells in the woods and carries a basket in which she puts the children whom she steals to eat, and she also robs graves; but at last she is slain by a sky-boy to whose image, reflected in the water, she makes love. Komokoa, the Rich One,' is the protector of seals, and lives at the bottom of the sea; the drowned go to him, and stories are narrated of persons who have penetrated to his abode and afterward returned to give his crest to their descendants. A frequent form of legend recounts how hunters harpoon a seal and are dragged down with incredible velocity until the home of Komokoa is reached; there they are initiated, and receive crests and riches with which they go back to their kindred, who have believed them long since dead. The Thunderbird, described as a huge creature carrying a lake on its back and flashing lightnings from its eyes, is also a crest, traditions telling of clan ancestors being carried away to its haunts and there initiated. Whales are said to be its food, and the bones of cetaceans devoured by it may be seen upon the mountains. Monstrous birds are of frequent occurrence in the myths of the North-West, as in California, many of them seeming to derive their characteristics from the Thunderbird, while the latter is sometimes asserted to resemble types of the Falconidae, as the hawk or the eagle.

The wooden masks, carved and painted, employed in the initiation ceremonies connected with the clan totems are the ritual representations of the clan myth. Many of these masks are double, the inner and outer faces representing two moods or incidents in the mythic adventure. Frequently the outer is an animal, the inner a human, face a curious expression of the aboriginal belief in a man-soul underlying the animal exterior. Masks are not regarded as idols; but that a kind of fetishistic reverence attaches to wood-carvings of super-natural beings in the North-West is shown by the number of myths telling of such figures manifesting life. "The carvings on the house posts wink their eyes," is a Haida saying denoting excellence in art, and more than one myth is adorned with tales of houses in which the sculptured pillars or the painted pictures are evidently alive, while stories of living persons rooted to the floor apparently have a similar origin. The carving of a wife out of wood is a frequent theme, and occasionally she, like Galatea, is vivified; when the husband's name is Sitting-on-Earth, we may suspect that here, too, we have a myth connected with the house-post. In creation stories the first human pair are sometimes represented as carved from wood by the demiurge and then endowed with life, although this may be a version of the Californian legend of the creation of men from sticks, modified by a people with a native genius for wood carving."



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