The scent of freshly cut cedar fills the air as Jewell James chisels curls of wood from a 15-foot totem pole that he hopes will bring healing to the families of three boys killed in a 1999 gasoline pipeline explosion along Whatcom Creek in Bellingham, Wash.
As he chips away at the 300-year-old log in his yard on the Lummi Indian Reservation, the outline of a salmon takes shape with each slice of his homemade carving tool. The salmon symbolizes the fish and other wildlife destroyed when a fireball ravaged more than a mile of the creek, killing Liam Wood, 18, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10.
“The pole is to restore the stream and its habitat and to remember the three boys who lost their lives,” says James, 54, a master carver for the Lummi Nation, based near Bellingham.
During the last three decades, James, with the help of fellow American Indian carvers, has created more than 60 totems to reawaken native culture and promote healing for families, communities and the nation.
Three of James’ most famous works honor victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The totems, painted red, black, yellow and white to represent the races of people hurt during the attacks, were dedicated in Sterling Forest in New York, Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., respectively each September between 2002 and 2004.
“We have used the totemic art as a teaching tool to help all of us learn to heal from grief, and this was the message we wanted to convey with the 9-11 poles,” James says.
In 1972, James began carving totems and studying the ancient art of his ancestors while attending the University of Washington in Seattle. He learned about totem designs and color patterns from master carver Marvin Oliver, who taught American Indian studies and art at the university, and he gleaned even more knowledge by working alongside other carvers, including his younger brother, Dale.
James begins the totem-carving process by selecting a log. He prefers Western red cedars that are at least 500 years old. The giant, old-growth trees are valued for their tall, straight trunks; soft, lightweight wood; and natural ability to repel insects and resist decay.
“If we find an appropriate living tree, we first bless it in a prayer ceremony, then hire a logger to drop it, and pay a logging company to haul it to the reservation,” says James, who works as a policy analyst for the Lummi tribe.
When a log arrives in his yard, he cuts it into lengths and removes the outer bark and soft, pulpy layer, exposing the carve-able, fragrant wood. After he rounds and smoothes the log with a 30-inch drawknife, James decides where he will carve the totem’s figures, which might include eagles or owls, whales or wolves, the sun or the moon.
He outlines the figures with a marker and cuts away wood that won’t be part of the final design. As he carves, the totem’s three-dimensional images take shape until figures cover the entire pole. James and his assistants can labor as much as 1,000 hours to create a single totem and typically they receive no compensation for the “healing” poles they carve. Volunteers often help him with cutting, chiseling, sanding or painting.
“Traditionally our people used elements found in nature for the paint colors, like red earth for red, cattail pollen for yellow, and various burned plants to create black or even an off-white,” he says. “Now we buy exterior paint at the hardware store.”
Among Pacific Northwest tribes, totem poles traditionally were towering accounts of family ancestry, clan achievements and creation myths. In his work, James tries to convey stories about human relationships, with each other and the environment, in hope of promoting peace and healing in the world.