- A Totem Pole History: The Work of Lummi Carver Joe Hillaire by Pauline Hillaire
The preservation of the Lummi tribe’s tradition of carving totem poles is an important topic to this volume’s contributors. The writers provide an interdisciplinary perspective and have much useful to say about this traditional art in a book that, on the surface, provides a life history of Joe Hillaire. He is the father of Pauline Hillaire, who is also known as “Scälla,” and she is credited as the author of the book. The story is told, however, through a compendium of essays, rather than an entirely linear and discursive treatment of material culture. This approach provides certain advantages by way of joining together diverse expertise.
The first half of the book is mainly a biography. Through the voice of his daughter, we learn that Joe Hillaire was not solely an experienced and beloved carver of the Lummi tribe of the Coast Salish people in the state of Washington, near the Canadian border. He also was a diplomat and evangelist, even a renaissance man in art and politics. In the often overlapping essays, facts from Joe Hillaire’s life story are in many places repeated in the text. There are moments when it is easy to sympathize with Hillaire, an always-smiling, friendly ambassador of his people, but one must question whether the complexity of conflict in his life has been passed over in this unabashedly positive treatment.
The book would have been made much more readable had its best section, that by Barbara Brotherton, an art historian at the University of Washington, served as the introduction. Only here, after sifting through much introductory material, does the reader find the central point of the call for preserving totem pole carving traditions. Brotherton explains that Joe Hillaire’s work was part of a generational strategy of advancing knowledge about Native American culture. This strategy arose in the 1930s, [End Page 107] when the US government ended its failed policy of assimilating Native Americans. The monumental poles carved by Hillaire were important artistic expressions for preserving the traditions of the tribe, not only because the work of carving was a performance art that linked the hands of generations, but also because the product was a physical manifestation of tribal stories, capable of communicating traditions. That is to say, Brotherton values Hillaire as a link in a cultural chain as a preserver of folkways. His performance was as important as his craft. What is more, Hillaire worked within a tradition, but was able to adapt it to modern purposes. Brotherton notes that, for the Lummi, totem poles served as “a strategic invention to record fragile knowledge that had only been orally transmitted” (p. 63). But the importance of totem pole carving went further because it allowed for communication with those outside of the tribe “with the objective of reducing conflict and effecting change” (p. 54).
Within this context, it becomes easier to see the important role that Joe Hillaire played in his community, and readers can better understand why he was involved in political action. Hillaire’s triumphs, in fact, went beyond his local community. He carved a friendship pole for Japan to help heal Japanese-American relations after the Second World War. He also received other international recognition as, for example, his work was on display at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.
The second half of the book consists of a patchwork quilt of essays of various kinds and lengths. All address the topic of Lummi totem pole carving, though not necessarily directly invoking Joe Hillaire. The book lists 11 contributors, including mostly tribal members and academics with expertise in the US Northwest. The contributions range from political statements of the history of Native American oppression in the region to a theoretical treatment of totem pole symbolism. The context provided by these scholars is important for understanding the importance of Joe Hillaire...