Saturday, April 08, 2006

Totems

Dear Indigna,

Apparently the city of Livermore, CA is suffering from a curse placed on its sewage system 33 years ago by a disgruntled totem pole carver who didn’t like the treatment of the totem pole he gave the city for its centennial. The story is that the city cut off a three-foot section of the pole for some reason, but the curse proved its validity by backing up a sewer near a city councilman’s house, so the city restored the missing section. Nevertheless, the carver, Adam “Fortunate Eagle” Nordwall, still refuses to lift the curse because, although the city council passed a resolution formally apologizing to him in 1974, he never got an “official” copy of it.

The city is planning some major sewer upgrades and one of the councilmen is begging for another formal apology and “curse-lifting ceremony” because you sure don’t want to do construction on cursed sewer lines in a densely populated area! But these plans are being thwarted by a group whose ancestry includes members of the Alaskan Tlingit and Haida tribes who taught “Fortunate Eagle,” a Minnesota Chippewa, how to carve totem poles. These guys are up in arms because they don’t think “Eagle” gave one of their ancestors, master carver Charles Brown, proper credit. They also object to “Eagle’s” disrespectfully linking the totem pole with the sewer system, and finally, point out that curses don’t exist in Tlingit culture (although apparently they do in Chippewa culture).

Are those of us who are descended from the immigrants who so brutally almost destroyed Native American culture responsible for these people’s ridiculously needy insistence on illogical and trivial demonstrations of “respect”?

Non-Native American
Detroit, MI

Dear Non-Native,

There is a lot of interesting depth to this story. First of all, what tribe does the first councilman belong to? Wouldn’t it be funny if it wasn’t “Fortunate Eagle’s” curse but the curse of a tribe with a historical animosity towards the councilman’s family that was responsible for the sewer backup? And what about the second councilman? Maybe he is being thwarted by the Tlingit and Haida tribes because of a curse passed down to him from the first councilman, and it has nothing to do with “Fortunate Eagle”! “Eagle” might just be riding a wave of incredible coincidence and lucky breaks!

Now, I have to admit, I totally side with the Alaskans in this dispute. I mean, if one of my long-dead ancestors taught a member of a different group--a Republican, say--some piece of our native lore (for example, how to sing traditional songs like “Don’t Stop Thinkin’ About Tomorrow”) and then that person went on to sing that song without crediting my great-great-great uncle twice removed, and then further went on to vote for the death penalty, which doesn’t exist in my culture, I’d be outraged!

And I can think of no better way of expressing that outrage than by protesting the lifting of a curse (say, on a sewer system) that disrespects my culture.

P.S. I’ve gotta get in touch with “Fortunate Eagle” and learn how to apply that curse to my ex-husband’s house.

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