A totem pole far to the south of its customary territory will recognize Alaska Native students, but it may also represent the beginning of an effort to honor different tribal groups in ways more specific than the omnipresent powwows that are supposed to represent “all things Native.”
That’s the position of Yvonne Bilinski, Navajo, director of the Native American Center at Fort Lewis College (FLC), in Durango, Colorado where a Totem Pole Raising Ceremony will be held January 16, followed by a feast.
The totem pole is 8 feet tall to accommodate the ceiling indoors at the center where it will be placed, she said. The artist who carved it, David Boxley, Tsimshian, and the dance group, Git Hoan, will perform traditional songs and dances as part of the ceremony.
In 2012, 92 students from 47 Alaskan tribes attended FLC, which offers treaty- and trust-related tuition support to Natives from throughout the U.S. In 2012, Native students numbered 1,019 or just over one-quarter of a total 3,800 students at the college, she said.
People have noted that the totem pole doesn’t reflect all Alaskan students in the same way, since they come from little villages, different bands, coastal areas, and such communities as Dillingham, Barrow, Fort Yukon, Juneau and Sitka, she said.
“Everyone recognizes [the totem] and recognizes that it comes from the Northwest coast and we probably do have more students from coastal areas.” The totem pole does, however, “show that we’re taking care of our students,” she said, explaining that the raven at the top of the totem pole and the bear at its base are traditional protectors.
Still hoping for more tribally specific ways of recognition, she explained that FLC has students from 135 tribes and “it’s hard to have something representative of each and every tribe,” she said.
For the last 48 years, the college has had annual powwows and “it can become ‘all about powwow’ although the practice of powwow is not universal among tribes,” she said.
It’s not that the Alaskan students aren’t a part—Bilinski noted that in 2010-11 Jennifer Bennis, of the Curyung Tribe, was Miss Hozhoni at FLC’s Hozhoni Days powwow.
She hopes that culturally specific representations and practices can be increasingly depicted at the Native American Center.
But “at least now we have a totem pole and it’s the beginning of something new,” she said. “Someday there will be something different still, when I can get the money to do it.”