The Art of Totem Lives

Aunt Bell used to pay visits to her extended family’s homes in Kelso, WA, would gather up all their Indian artifacts she could find—objects that had been handed down for generations—and threw them away.

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Portland Artist and Totem Carver Ray Losey, the grand-nephew of “Mean” Aunt Bell,  tells the story of how the family began hiding their cultural treasures, that Aunt Bell wouldn’t find them. They buried old rounded-head stone hammers and fishing net weights (flat river stones the breadth of a large outstretched hand with a center-bored hole about the width of a fresh chestnut) in the cement foundations of homes, porches, stairs, whatever needed to be built.

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Indians unrecognized as Indians by the U.S. Government hid them. Aunt Bell kept the family members from registering for their Indian “numbers”—a kind of census registration that earned individuals money from the U.S. Government—because Aunt Bell wanted the family to be White.

Aunt Bell wanted her family to survive. And like her strong women ancestors—the chief negotiators, for example, who for generations boarded the European longships to administer trade between Indians and Whites—Aunt Bell usually got what she wanted.

But not always.

When Ray Losey’s father, Rex, was 11, his mother died. Aunt Bell demanded he attend the Indian Boarding School, one of the educational institutions infamous for eradicating everything remotely Indian from Indian children. The boy’s grandmother had been a ‘half-breed’, as they called those born half-Indian, half-White. She was murdered by a group of Whites tramping through Eastern Oregon, in a cave where the family lived. The killers needn’t have concerned themselves with repercussion: these were the days before the US courts officially recognized Indians, Blacks, and Chinese as people.

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Lucky for the future boy, his grandfather soon married a White woman, which superficially relieved future Rex, insofar as his new grandmother would facilitate the boy’s assimilation into the dominant culture. Nevertheless, Rex kept his 1/4 Indian blood sacred, along with the culture, the stories, and the art of his grandmother’s people. His people. He soon began to share these treasures, through storytelling and totem-carving.

In 1971, when his son Ray was grown, Rex passed on the family arts to the young man. The first pole they carved together now stands tall outside Ray Losey’s home on in Portland’s Southwest Hills.

Topped with wing-spread Eagle, the pole is painted in bold, bright colors with the distinct “formline” style for which Northwest native art is well-known, the totem art is a treat for hikers on meandering trails nearby.

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Ray Losey has been making totem poles, telling stories, and performing dances with masks for decades. Now 67, he verges retirement. He has passed on the art to the swaths who snap photos of the totem pole near the house, but has yet to encounter some young version of himself on whom to impart the knowledge, and technique.

Years ago, he says, he held workshops in search of a young apprentice to pass on the art—ideally, a teenager eager to learn the stories and cultures that birthed it—to no avail.

Storytellers know better than most that stories live longer than people. When Losey talks about retiring, his voice slows and lowers.

“My contribution,” he says, “is carrying the art into the 21st century. I’ve done that.”

Most of his sharing is the sheer volume of people who walk by his house. Where did you get this totem pole, they ask.

Target, he says, deadpan.

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Ray Losey’s artistic legacy has spread across the country. The totem pole he’s currently working on lays prone across two sawhorses under the house, will soon find home at a YMCA camp in Iowa, far from its native Northwest.

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If Aunt Bell’s confiscations led to the long-term preservation of artifacts in concrete foundations, then Losey’s open-air, dirt-ground, totem-carving workshop under the house reveals a great irony: his work unveils that which was necessarily hidden for so long. He keeps it close to the ground, like the “low man on the totem pole,” who, in Indian belief—contrary to common assumption—is actually the most valuable and highly regarded, for one’s connection to the earth is precisely what allows the ravens to fly.

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4 thoughts on “The Art of Totem Lives”

  1. What an intriguing and well penned profile of this master carver. You have unearthed a legend. This is a man I’d love to hang out with.
    Perhaps your story will stir something deep within the heart of a young person looking for an apprenticeship? Let’s hope so.

    Like

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