Category Archives: art

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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choosing to belong

Choosing to belong is a prerequisite for an engaged democracy.
-Eden Trenor

As hordes of suburbanites flock back into cities; as migrant youth from the reddish Midwest find that the path to enlightenment (or at least social progress) leads toward the blue spots on the map; as the millennials who spent the entire Bush administration learning to hack continue to amass their fortunes, Portland now finds itself a playground for a generation of adults whose relationship to money and responsibility was largely formed to the tune of hip hop culture and trillion-dollar wars.

Portland is experiencing rapid and vulnerable change. No one knows what the external landscape will look like in five or eight years. We have occasion, however, to mold our internal landscapes – which will, in turn, influence how we see what happens in our streets.

Wait.

Before we go there, let’s back up a minute.

Hi. My name is Sean. I’m a tall, kind of awkward, white sis male. I’ve lived in Portland three years. Although I’m not particularly sorry for moving here, I’m learning that, like many places, Portland has a social history that began long before I arrived. Though I feel respectful of those who came before me, I have no idea if they would have, or do, welcome my presence.

This relatively new idea of honoring those who came before is a burden the colonists didn’t warn us about because they probably didn’t care. It’s heavy, too: as the great-great-etc. grandchildren of Euro-American “pioneers” who showed up in Native territory as cavalry or caravans looking to fill orders or find a safe plot of land, we intrinsically empathize with our ancestors (and often romanticize their quests with video games and school curriculums), but the memory comes with a dichotomous guilt, because we’re also, ideally, able to see the humanity of the colonized (read: expelled, murdered) people.

Let’s consider the name of the new pedestrian bridge that spans the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing. After requesting the public to submit name ideas, the City refused the overwhelming consensus to name the bridge after Kirk Reeves, a famous, recently deceased Portland street performer, and instead settled on ‘Tilikum’ – a Chinook Wawa word for ‘people.’ So it was: Bridge of the People. Yes. To honor the people who lived in the region since before the last Ice Age, and who stewarded one of the most abundant salmon runs in the world until the early 1800s, when Industry arrived from the East.

It seems that everyone was happy with the name. Two installations of art donated by the The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde sits ceremonially inaccessible at either end of the crossing, flanked by subtle No Trespassing signs. Lest a curious pedestrian meander over to gander at one of the pieces (each a part of a three-piece project called ‘We Have Always Lived Here,’ by Chinook artist Greg A. Robinson), a TriMet rent-a-cop will roll up to warn you that it’s both unsafe and illegal to sit in the grass (my wife and I had a picnic next to one on Christmas day, before we were shooed away).

Regardless of name, the ceaseless machine of progress dictates that the new bridge would have gone up and been named Abigail Scott Duniway, or Kirk Reeves, or Wy’east, and would have been everything that it is now: a pretty coat of arms for Portland’s ironic commitment to sustainability. That the former curators of the lower Willamette Valley (so named for former locals also) were given an honorable mention by the great, etc. grandchildren of their murderers and captors must be a step in the right direction. As would be, for example, a better understood history of the black community’s history in Northeast by the new residents and officers gentrifying and patrolling Killingsworth St., a history all but blotted out as social decline by the city of Portland.

Frankly, I don’t know what the ‘right direction’ is. Capitalism’s penchant for growth is chasing the tail of the American Dream, a fantastical, dragon-like character I’ve read about in Hunter S. Thompson books. I only know that if I focus on the landscape that I don’t like, on the external events I do not want to happen, I will only see that which I do not like, and do not want to happen. It’s an easy downward spiral we’re wired to follow down, down, down.

The predominant culture in the United States (media, government) did not offer an effective model to teach me to take responsibility for my actions, my feelings, or my community. I doubt I’m the only one.

Through this project, Stumptown Lives, I’m trying to make up for lost lessons. I love this town, and am choosing to belong here because I haven’t another place to go. I want to be a part of the change. It’ll be a journey – one for which I hope you’ll join me, or at least hold me accountable for my mistakes along the way.