Raising the Issues with the “Family Totem Pole”

Last night, I came across a resource designed to assist teachers to bring Indigenous content into their classrooms. It made me exceptionally uncomfortable. As a teacher educator trying to support new educators to respectfully bring Indigenous content, perspectives, and pedagogies into their classrooms, I was deeply disappointed to see this resource, which contained stereotypes, pan-Indigenous perspectives, and cultural appropriation, had been developed in 2018. 

I have to believe we can do better. 

Well-intentioned people have told me not to take it personally. I don’t. That is, I do not believe that educators are deliberately trying to create and replicate lessons that will reinforce stereotypes and trivialize cultural knowledge for the sole purpose of hurting me. 

However, it is personal. 

When I see an activity that directs students to think of their immediate family members and choose animal and character traits from a list associated with “Indigenous” representations of those animals for the purpose of gluing them to paper towel rolls and making “Family Totem Poles,” I cannot pretend that it does not impact me personally. I cannot pretend to be able to reconcile the image of my father raising the first pole on Haida Gwaii after the Potlatch Ban was lifted with the picture that I now have in my head of non-credited “Indigenous” art being coloured and glued to construction paper. And I cannot reconcile this “art activity” with the image of the Elders gathering to weave together the threads of their ancestral knowledge that ultimately led us back to living our culture – a culture which was forced into dormancy because Sir John A. MacDonald deemed the potlatch “a debauchery of the worst kind.”

I believe we can do better. 

So instead of hoping that you will come to the same conclusion as me, I am going say exactly what I am thinking in the hopes that I do not need to continue to repeat myself: 

  1. Indigenous art is created by artists who have names, Nations, and bills to pay. If you want to use their art, please ask their permission and offer to compensate them. If they do not want you to use their art, respect that decision. It is their right. It is their art. 
  2. If you are granted permission to use their art, please make sure that you confirm with the artist how they would like to be acknowledged. Then, make sure that you include that acknowledgement (if one is requested) every single time you use it.
  3. If you are granted permission to use their art, please make sure to correctly name it. Haida eagle and raven designs may look similar, but that does not mean their names are interchangeable. 
  4. The Haida have a Clan system. Based on our Clan, there are specific animals (and other Beings) that we have permission to wear as crests. Those crests are carved onto a pole based on the Clan of the person who is connected to the pole. Sometimes we make references to characteristics of a Being, but there is no list of characteristics for each crest, nor is there a list of animal traits to be associated with the crest. If you want to ascribe particular traits to animals, please do not label the activity as Haida or “Indigenous.”
  5. If you want to share ceremonial knowledge and practices, do your homework. Ask yourself, “Is it appropriate for me to share this information?” “Do I have permission from the Nation, community, Clan, or person to share this information?” “Do I know enough about this to be able to share it respectfully?” If you do not have enough information, do some more homework. Learn some more. Practice with knowledge that does not have protocols associated with it. 
  6. Finally, there is no “Indigenous” or “Aboriginal” Nation. We are unique and we are diverse. Please recognize this by using the names of specific Nations when you are describing us and remember that even within our Nations, we have different beliefs and values. 

I know that BC educators are scrambling to find resources to support this work, but please know that it does require work. We have made progress, and there are some incredible resources out there (for example http://FNESC.ca), but there are no worksheets or resource packs or instructional videos that will magically “Indigenize” your classroom for you. It requires deep reflection, deep commitment to learning, and, sometimes, moments of deep discomfort. 

I know that we all make mistakes, but please remember who is impacted by these particular mistakes. In the case of the “Family Totem Pole” activity, the people who are harmed are Indigenous children, families, and communities. When we reinforce these inaccurate stereotypes and trivialize culture, we are complicit in the erasure of ancestral knowledge that has been passed on for generations. We are complicit in the erasure of ancestral knowledge that the government attempted to assimilate out of existence. We are complicit in the erasure of a cultural inheritance that only exists because it was fiercely protected and passed on by Elders and families who were dedicated to ensuring that future generations know what it means to be Haida. 

We must do better.