This is part 3 of a series on Christian art of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Read part 1 here.
“In the absence of a written language, the Indians of the Northwest had preserved their stories and events carved from cedar logs. They were the nearest thing people had to books. The characters on a totem pole provide an outline so that, after hearing the story, listeners can read the pole for themselves.”
—David K. Fison (quoted in an article by Mike Dubose, United Methodist Communications, November 13, 2000)
The greatest story ever told . . . now available in totem pole.
In 1965, near the end of his tenure as pastor of First United Methodist Church of Ketchikan, Alaska, the Rev. David K. Fison was asked to serve as an interim pastor in the nearby Tsimshian village of Metlakatla. (The Christian community there has been longstanding; the village was founded in 1887 by missionary William Duncan and a large group of Tsimshian converts who followed him there from “Old” Metlakatla, British Columbia.)
While in Metlakatla, Fison fell in love with the Tsimshian people and their culture. He was especially interested in their use of totem poles to tell stories and to commemorate important events. But he noticed a void: among all the magnificent poles they had erected, where were the ones that told the story of their encounter with Christ?
In Western culture, a visual language for telling the Jesus story has long been established. The word “nativity” instantly generates a standard image in the Western mind—a baby in a manger inside a barn, surrounded by an adoring Mary and Joseph, shepherds, three kings, angels, and a smattering of domesticated animals. The words “crucifixion” and “resurrection” likewise carry automatic visual associations. That’s because these events from the life of Christ have been the subject of much of the corpus of Western art since the Middle Ages. But the Tsimshian had no such precedent to follow. Their artistic tradition consists mainly of highly stylized and compressed depictions of humans, birds, fish, and mammals, stacked on top of or within one another. How might they go about rendering the gospel story in their own visual language?
After leaving his post in Metlakatla, Fison spent years studying Tsimshian culture at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He decided to translate the gospel into a visual format that the Tsimshian could identify with. He wanted them to know that Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection were historical events that could be part of their tribal history if they wanted to claim them.
The Christmas Totem Pole
Left: David K. Fison, The Christmas Totem Pole, 1987. Yellow cedar, 12 feet tall. Home of the artist. Photo by David Mendosa.
Right: Painted fiberglass replica of the 1987 yellow cedar original by David K. Fison. 12 feet tall. Erected June 7, 2010, on the front lawn of Saint John United Methodist Church in Anchorage, Alaska. Inscription: “The Christmas Totem Pole, carved after ancient Tsimshian culture by David K. Fison, Anchorage, AK, 1987.” Photo courtesy of Saint John UMC.
In 1987, after much research and preparation, Fison completed a twelve-foot-tall Christmas totem pole, which he proudly displays in the living room of his home in Anchorage. (His work as a wood patternmaker in his younger years had equipped him with much of the necessary technical skill.) He wrote the following poem to explain the details of the narrative.
My friend, behold the carving,
Now open up your soul,
And you will learn the legend
Of the Christmas Totem Pole.
Now the Ancient Tsimshian
Had “books” for all to see,
For when they “wrote” a story
They carved it from a tree.
While gazing at old Totems
One Christmas dreamingly
I beheld a vision
Of a strange nativity.
Now, I sought to hold it,
But it escaped my grasp.
Not ’til I searched long their culture
Did it return at last.
Yet did some Ancient Craftsman
Guide by hands to lift the veil
Of how He would have carved it
If He had only known the tale?
Black Raven was His messenger
To bring His word, it seems.
And Frog, the lesser creature,
He sent to them in dreams.
To a lowly Maid came Raven,
To plan that Holy Birth,
While Frog assured Woodcarver
Her Child would bless the earth.
An order for a potlatch
Was given in that day.
They journeyed there by dugout
Through inland waterway.
No place was found for shelter,
Except the forest wild.
Where Bear feeds on the berries
Was born that Holy Child.
Men tending village fishtraps
Heard the Raven’s song
And ran to find a Saviour
Promised e’er so long.
Then traveling to that village
Came leaders from afar
With gifts for a newborn Chieftan,
Being guided by a star.
Yet there were those who feared Him,
And one who wished Him dead,
But Great Chief of the Heavens
Had a plan of love instead.
So He sent Frog to warn them;
And they hid with another clan.
He would become the Great Chief
And fulfill His Father’s plan.
Yes, He comes to every people
No matter where they live;
Just as they are, accepts them,
His Holy love to give.
So take Him as your Chief, my friend,
And He shall make you whole.
This fulfills the purpose
Of the Christmas Totem Pole.
Fison also wrote an interpretive key to the pole to further explain his choice of images. From top to bottom, the images are
- RAVEN (Angel): Raven is the emissary of “The Great Chief of the Heavens,” the Tsimshian term for God. Raven holds the star of Bethlehem in his beak.
- WOODCARVER (Joseph): Since all villages were connected by water, travel between villages was usually by canoe. Thus Joseph is depicted with a canoe paddle for the journey to Bethlehem.
- MOTHER AND CHILD (Mary and the infant Jesus): In this version of the Christmas story there was no room in the village because it was filled with visitors who had come for a potlatch, a gathering where a powerful chief would display his wealth and power.
- BEAR (symbolizes the place of Jesus’s birth): Since the ancient Tsimshian had no domestic animals, there can be no stable or manger. With no room in the village, Jesus would have been born where the forest animals feed. A bear, feeding on berries, takes the place of the manger.
- KEEPERS OF THE VILLAGE FISH TRAPS (Shepherds): Since the Tsimshian had no sheep or other domesticated animals, keepers of the village fish traps would have been the nearest equivalent.
- CHIEF (Wise Men): They came from distant villages following the star. The Tsimshian had no gold, but a very valuable possession would have been a copper shield.
- FROG (The Angel of Dreams): Gives reassurances to Joseph to take Mary as his wife and later warns him of Herod’s plan to kill the Child.
- POTLATCH CHIEF (King Herod): Herod is upside down in Frog’s clutches, symbolizing how Herod was outwitted by Frog’s warning to Joseph.
To hear Fison talk about the Christmas totem pole, watch this 2002 UMTV video feature.
The Easter Totem Pole
Left: David K. Fison, The Easter Totem Pole, 2001. Red cedar, 17 feet tall. Erected April 28, 2001, inside Saint John United Methodist Church in Anchorage, Alaska. Inscription: “The Easter Totem Pole, 500 yr old cedar from Ketchikan, Alaska, carved after ancient Tsimshian culture by David K. Fison (Nadáam Nłomsk) of the Tsimshian Killer Whale Clan, Anchorage, Alaska, April 28, 2001.” Photo courtesy of Saint John UMC.
Right: Painted fiberglass replica of the 2001 red cedar original by David K. Fison. 17 feet tall. Erected July 17, 2011, on the front lawn of Saint John United Methodist Church in Anchorage, Alaska. Inscription: “The Easter Totem Pole, carved after ancient Tsimshian culture by David K. Fison (Nadáam Nłomsk) of the Tsimshian Killer Whale Clan, Anchorage, Alaska, April 28, 2001.” Photo courtesy of Saint John UMC.
At the urging of friends, Fison created a second totem pole to illustrate the Easter story. Completed in 2001, this pole was given as a gift to Saint John United Methodist Church in Anchorage, a church he pastored from 1972 to 1979 and of which he is still a member. The Easter totem pole was installed in the sanctuary on April 28, 2001. Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian peoples attended the ceremony, during which Fison presented the following poem.
My friend, behold the carving!
Now open up your soul,
And you will hear the story
Of the Easter Totem Pole.
Now I’ve carved this sacred story
After the ancient Tsimshian,
Using only what they knew then,
In terms they would understand.
Smoked salmon was their bread;
For grains in a rainforest will not grow.
And let it be the howl of Wolf,
For they had no cock to crow.
Great Chief of the Heavens
Was their Creator’s name,
And Raven was His messenger.
Now the story I proclaim!
“Tonight, one of you will betray Me.”
Then, Peter vows his loyalty!
“Before Wolf howls tonight,
You’ll deny you even know Me.”
He blesses and breaks smoked salmon;
“Eat! It’s my body given for you!”
Berry juice is blessed and passed;
“Drink of this, all of you!”
“It’s My blood of a new treaty;
For the forgiveness of sins, you see!
As oft’ as you do this,
Do it to remember Me!”
They sing and drum a sacred song,
As into the forest they walk.
“Stay awake and watch with Me;
For with Great Chief I must talk.”
Judas, wearing thirty shells,
Now greets Him with a kiss.
Armed men then lay hold of Him.
“Judas! I knew you would do this.”
Then Peter begins to fight
And cuts off one man’s ear!
Jesus heals the wounded man;
“Peter! Get away from here!”
Peter has followed at a distance;
Then up to a fire he ran.
Three times accused, “You’re with him!”
He says, “I don’t know the man!”
Then Peter hears the howl of Wolf.
He weeps and runs away.
Judas throws back those thirty shells,
And hanged himself that day.
Chief washes his hands, saying,
“I’m not to blame today;
This is your doing, not mine!”
And lets them have their way.
They mock Him and they whip Him,
And a devil’s club hat apply.
They peg Him to a cedar cross,
And hang Him up to die.
They gamble for His blanket;
Beaver teeth dice they threw.
He says, “Father, forgive them,
They know not what they do.”
He suffers for the longest time;
Then finally He cries out,
“My work is finished, O Great Chief!”
And He dies with a shout.
Friend Joseph asks for His body;
A spear makes sure He’s dead.
He’s wrapped in a cedar blanket.
A cave is His burial bed.
With huge stones, the cave is sealed.
His fearful enemies say,
“Guards must now be placed there
To keep His friends away!”
Great Chief of the Heavens
Sends Raven that third day.
The ground shakes violently;
Stones and guards both fall away!
“Now go and tell His followers
He is risen from the dead!
They’ll see Him when they gather
At the mountain where He said.”
When they gather at the mountain,
The Risen Savior they see,
Surrounded by the shining sun;
“Light of the World” is He!
His arms reach out toward them,
A Trinity of heavenly helping hands.
His followers fall down in worship,
Awaiting His commands.
Jesus tells of a promise,
“All power is given me!
Soon, you’ll have the Holy Spirit,
And my witnesses you’ll be.”
“Make followers of all tribes;
Go then and baptize too.
Teach them to obey everything
That I have asked of you.”
“And I will be with you always
To the end of all things!”
He lifts His hands and blesses them
And is taken as with wings.
Now there were other appearances
Of our Risen Savior, you know:
On the lakeshore and other places,
That are not carved on this pole.
But this is carved that you may know,
Our Risen Savior does remain,
And believing in Him, we have
Eternal Life in His name.
So keep Him as your Chief, my friend,
And He shall keep you whole.
This fulfills the purpose of
The Easter Totem Pole.
Also at this ceremony, Fison was officially adopted into the Killer Whale Clan of the Tsimshian people by tribal elders Doug and Mary Ann Yates. The Yateses, whom Fison had pastored in Metlakatla decades earlier, had heard about his totem poles and wanted to honor him for his efforts at honoring and preserving their culture. They gave him the name Nadáam Nłomsk, which means “Carver of Sacred Things.”
From bottom to top, the Easter totem pole depicts
- JESUS WASHING THE DISCIPLES’ FEET
- THE LAST SUPPER: Smoked salmon and berry juice replace the traditional bread and wine. After the meal, Jesus and his disciples sing a hymn to the accompaniment of a drum (at right).
- THE CUP OF SORROWS (Gethsemane): Jesus’s hands reach out to take the cup, while beside him his three closest disciples are asleep.
- JUDAS’S BETRAYAL: A necklace of thirty shells replaces the thirty pieces of silver. The arresting party presses in from the right with torches and knives.
- PETER’S DENIAL / WOLF: The howls of a wolf take the place of the rooster’s crow.
- PILATE: From the left, the mob yells, “Crucify him!” Chief Pilate washes his hands of the crowd’s sentence. On the right, Jesus’s hands are bound and he is whipped.
- THE CRUCIFIXION: Jesus’s crown is made of twisted devil’s club stems, a plant native to Alaska. On the left, a set of beaver teeth dice lie atop a cedar-bark blanket, signifying that Jesus’s executors gambled for his clothing. On the right, John, Jesus’s mother, and Mary Magdalene weep.
- THE EMPTY TOMB: A crack across the bottom signifies an earthquake. The two Marys approach from the side, each with a labret in her lower lip, an ornament worn by ancient women of the Northwest Coast to signify high status in the community.
- RAVEN (Angel): Announces Christ’s resurrection.
- RESURRECTION AND ASCENSION: The trifold hands represent the Trinity of Creator, Savior, and Holy Spirit.
I really love what Fison has done to contextualize the gospel to Tsimshian culture. He doesn’t compromise any core components, he just changes their dressing, in order to emphasize that Jesus’s work was for the Tsimshian. By using the totem pole art form in a Christian context, Fison implies that the gospel story is identity-shaping, something to be memorialized and proclaimed to the world—and to be integrated, not separated, from the rest of who you are. Just as totem poles are traditionally used to welcome those from outside one’s clan, so too should the gospel.
In showing that Christianity can be perfectly at home in Native culture, David Fison has made an enormous contribution to the church’s witness in the world. He has shown that foreign does not necessarily mean idolatrous, and that rather than hastily condemning cultural practices that are different from our own, we should seek to understand their meaning and appreciate their beauty, because our God is a transcultural God who seeks praise in whatever form we want to give it to him.
Ray Buckley, director of the Native American Communications Office of United Methodist Communications, summed up Fison’s gift like this: “Here was a man who spoke the language of a people he loved, and convinced them that God spoke their language also.”
I hope that Fison’s work will continue to inspire Native Christian artists to consider how they too might tell the Jesus story through their art.
A special thanks to the Rev. Peter K. Perry and Tiaré Hammond of Saint John United Methodist Church for supplying me with information and photos for this article.
The poems “The Christmas Totem Pole” and “The Easter Totem Pole” are copyrighted by the poet, David K. Fison, and are used by permission.
Read part 4.