More than a carving, House of Tears story pole a marvel with a message
BY MICHEAL RIOS
Tulalip tribal members, Native relatives, and community allies united at Hibulb Cultural Center to welcome the Red Road to D.C. journey during its Tulalip visit. A gorgeous Pacific Northwest day radiated beams of sunshine on the guest of honor — a 400-year-old western red cedar. Designed with indigenous precision by Lummi Nation’s House of Tears carvers, the 25-foot story pole lay front and center while symbolizing an unwavering message: Protect the sacred!
“We have come together, like figures in a story pole, to produce a vision — the protection of Native American sacred sites,” explained head carver and Lummi activist, Jewell “Praying Wolf” James.
“Native America has endured hundreds of years of oppression, yet our spiritual practices and beliefs have not been exterminated. We are still connected to Mother Earth spiritually, and our sacred sites are extremely essential to our belief systems.”
“Working on story poles opens a path to the spirit,” he continued.
“It’s my hope this pole transmits that spirit to D.C. and allows the Biden Administration to fulfill their treaty obligations. By bringing this pole to Washington, D.C., we intend to awaken the sacred commitment the United States has to Native American nations.”
More than a carving, this man-made marvel took over two months and fourteen pairs of hands working in synch to transform the nearly two ton, old-growth cedar log into a symbol of our collective responsibility to protect sacred lands, waterways, and wildlife for generations to come.
At twenty-four feet, eight inches tall and three feet wide, the pole tells a story of connectedness and asks for accountability by the humans who call Earth home. Skillfully etched on the cedar’s surface is a moon, diving eagle, two Chinook salmon, sea bear, sea wolf, a grandmother with her granddaughter, and a number of spiritually protective elements chiseled throughout.
Featured on the pole’s base are seven tears representing the seven generations of trauma passed on from colonialism. Impossible to overlook are the blood red hands that span from top to bottom symbolizing the silenced voices of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“Many grandmothers are raising their granddaughter as their daughter because the mother is missing in action,” said Jewell.
“Either she got abused by a husband and ran and disappeared for her own safety or she got caught up into drugs, or she’s missing and murdered. It’s a nationwide crisis. It’s a reflection of our collective attitude. The way we treat the female in the family is how we treat the Earth. The scars are permanent.”
Mother Earth is covered with scars. Her air polluted by the burning of fossil fuels. Her oceans filled with industrial waste. Her forests replaced by concrete jungles. These scars are caused by a human perspective that sees everything as a resource to be exploited. Unchecked, this perspective threatens all life across the planet.
“We look at our children and our heart aches because how do we stop the devastation of what’s happening to our mother? What kind of lifestyle are we leaving our children to inherent?” pondered Lummi master carver Douglas James.
“We’re reaching out and asking for all to come together with one heart and one mind. We must stand up for the future generations, like how our ancestors stood up for us.”
The House of Tears carvers hope to bring a moment of self-reflection across the United States and an acknowledgement of past and present injustices inflicted on Native peoples and their lands without consent. They’ll be journeying over 16,000 miles to share these powerful messages embodied by their stunning story pole.
“This is a spiritual gift being shared with the people, all the tribes throughout the U.S.,” said Tulalip elder Inez Bill.
“This pole serves as an example of what we can do when we unite our hearts and minds in appreciation of the blessings we’ve been given. The natural environment is where our spirituality and traditions come from. We need to honor and respect our ancestors by taking care of these areas It is a blessing to be stewards of this land.”
Stops along the Red Road to D.C. journey included sacred sites such as Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and the Black Hills in South Dakota. The pole’s final destination is the nation’s capital, delivered to the Biden Administration and first-ever Native cabinet member, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
As the pole travels, it draws lines of connection honoring, uniting and empowering communities working to protect sacred sites. With each stop, the pole grows more powerful; collecting thoughts and prayers from anyone it comes into contact with. After being touched by the hearts and minds of thousands of Native American citizens across the country, the one-of-a-kind story pole will be memorialized in the Smithsonian Museum.
“I’m thankful we were able to share our welcoming song and bless the pole in our own traditional way,” reflected Tulalip Chairwoman Teri Gobin.
“Being able to have our people touch the pole and put their prayers into it, knowing that tribal members from all across Indian Country will do the same, is extremely powerful. It affirms that in this fight to protect our environment and future generations, we are together as one people… the people of the Earth.”