Totem and attitude

Totemism is one of the concepts used to describe the life of natives outside the Western civilisation. Seldom they give a good explanation what it means and it sounds often like deterrent political and biased opinion instead of empirical description

Totem, Totemism, heretic, pagan, Jesuit, Indian, Catholic Church, animal worship-theory, transmigration theory, external soul theory, conceptions theory, Guardian Spirit, Great Spirit, Manitou Stones, Dreamtime, Algonquin, rock-carvings, Sheep-eaters, digging stick, non-biased science, sustainable rural cultures

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"Totemism from ote, root ot, possessive form otem, in the Ojibway dialect of the Algonquin stock of American Indians. By some authorities spelled dodeme (Father de Smet), todem (Father Petitot), Toodaim, dodaim, totam (J. Long 1791). The original signification was apparently a person's family or tribe, and in a narrower sense his belongings".

We can note that the word totem is fairly young compared to the word "Barbarian" used about North Europeans. It is one of the few words we can date in the use of the high Westerners. This said because the name became early deterrent when the Church deliberately began to civilise Indians. No Indian asked to be civilised and it was the cultural imperialism of the Europeans.

From the time of Theodosius around 380 AD it became use in the Catholic Church to hunt heretics as well as pagans supposed to be a lower race. Theodosius wanted to rule the people by mystery of the Christian message and later generations of church fathers build on that ... Hopefully the world nowadays respects the Human Rights of 1947 however The Jehovah's Witnesses visit me once or twice a year and tell me that I am a heathen pagan and they want to save me. I do not feel that low yet.

In America it was much like when the Romans taught Europeans Roman rule. Imperialism has always the same face when the superior tells the savages how foolish they are. Savage is another frequently used word about native Americans and Australians of those days. We meet still those words in old and new books. Only the politicians try to keep their language clean from unequal words because they think the world should be egalitarian in the civilised millennium of 2000. They need our votes.

Totemism constitutes the group of superstitions and customs of which the totem is the centre. It is defined as the intimate relation supposed to exist between an individual or a group of individuals and a class of natural objects, i. e. the totem, by which the former regard the latter as identified with them in a mystical manner and in a peculiar sense their own belongings, so that they bear the name of the totem and show this belief in certain customs.

The academic definition of totemism dates back to 1791 when J. Long and the Jesuits studied North American Indians. Soon the Australian missionaries found the same kind of primitive totemism. The Catholic Church stood for much of the writing and definitions those days. Soon they found more attributes such as fetishism and animism. Over all these ruled the civilised view and words of the Church. Oh, they also looked inward and saw that all "high cultures" have practised totemism and shamanism before they became civilised.

I think of "canned moulded figs" when I read definitions of the kind. I am sorry to say that such ideas still live and are used in much writing of today. When putting labels on something we make the distance between us the superior all knowing civilised westerners and the primitive Barbarians out there. But on my civilised level we should compare and see what unites the others and us and we should be as respectful as ever to ancestors and other cultures. Young people manage it today, so why should we elderly figs not do that?

Maybe I should confess that I am brought up at the rural side with much totemism. We used in everyday life when we were picturing things --- oily like an eel, dirty as a swine, stubborn like a cow, clever like a fox, bully like a bull, like a frisky horse, restive like a horse and whatever imagination invented. We put totem labels on people too --- hen mother, He-goat, He-buck, He-Hen, Stallion, Mare, Hind and many more from the real world. When I settled in town some people did not really catch my metaphors. Today on Internet I am not allowed to use the normal word for He-Hen for some reason.

You see that I have walked the long way from primitive totemism to the civilised conformism and fundamentalism in society. I cannot help it, syndromes like these ask for joking and irony. As opposite pole I will take a bit about the Totem Pole. When I was young I believed that all Indian villages showed up a totem pole. When I drew a site it was with the tepee and the totem pole. Now I am wiser and I know that only the natives in NorthWest America, West Canada and Alaska have this tradition.

The tradition is not old either and it seems to have started not long after the Jesuits with their cultural imperialism started to weigh the Indian culture at a golden balance. It is much like in my childhood with the German Boot on Denmark. The nationalism and cultural pride started to grow. If the war had lasted longer it would have boosted the Danes to be known ads the strongest people in the world I think. We can also compare it with the women in the Andes South America with their traditional hat made to show that they are as noble as the high hats at Leicester Square in London Let us look at a cut of today at

Originally an important part of the Potlatch ceremony, a feast with deep meaning to coastal First Nations, totem poles were once carved and raised to represent a family-clan, its kinship system, its dignity, its accomplishments, it prestige, its adventures, its stories, its rights and prerogatives. A totem pole served, in essence, as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry.

In times past, a totem was raised for several reasons:

They emphasise that the totem pole is an emblem and not an icon of totemism and animism. They are right today naturally. We use another language and other concepts than 200 years ago. Below I want to show that they are not so far from ancient use as they think. They compare with the emblem in the US Army and we can take a step back to the Roman Army with the Eagle in front and many other symbols and icons.

Maybe they do not see the icons but the different parts of the pole are icons for known and forgotten features in their society. The symbolism behind emblematic crests such as Bear, Wolf, Half-man, Sea Serpent, Glass Nose, Hawk, Red Snapper and Wild Woman should be seen as partly forgotten icons. Natives of today put their own imagination and cultural remains into the images. Still there is a lot left of the poetic languages and mythic image we hardly understand.

Bear, Wolf, Serpent, Hawk, Half-man are icons we know from ancient times in Europe. Even the Wild Woman is seen as Bera, the Bear's Bride in some Scandinavian symbolism. Else we have the Wild Man Hercules seen in the Danish royal emblem of today. I still wonder about the Half-man we see on some rock-carvings from last millennium BC. I do not think we have enough material to make a rational story about the images on the totem poles. Today they are simply emblems tied to the man /family or clan.

New attitudes

I wonder if I came to this world upside down. It is almost a rule that when I meet and solve problems I am forced to do it topsy-turvy and I go the longest and most difficult paths. My memory goes back to when I was 5 - 6 and it was very easy to lure me and make a fool of me. The main cause was that I was sent to another country all alone and had to learn a new language and culture on my own.

It was much the same situation as when the autistic child faces the world. The child understands every word literally and does not have the capacity to sort out different meanings and much worse underlying meanings. The sick process goes one when the child realises that it is impossible to communicate and soon isolates from the humans that do not understand and threat the child as sick.

Language and being with other people is a two-way situation and soon other people begin to threat the child differently and the child become an outsider. Next sick step is the schizophrenic situation. Surely many children have been spoiled because the surrounding people do not understand what is going on.

Especially the Catholic Church and its missionaries are to blame for making sick and inferior people out of the healthy proud natives in the colonies and in the so-called New World. When the Church got power it was easy to forget the rules about loving other people as brothers and the sin of killing other humans. As they say power corrupts. It is not far away since I remember from my young days what they told about "those small black people in Africa that needed trousers and a Bible" to become civilised.

When I set up the mirror the real fools /autistics are the missionaries and other powers believing they are better than the "savages" are. That attitude has slowed down the evolution among these inferior people in fact ... the conceited loses his wisdom.

Thanks to Fenimore Cooper and his books "The last Mohikan", "The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" I got a more realistic and humanlike attitude to at least the "noble Indian", a little romantic though. I lived in a landscape with no forests in sight and I dreamt of living in the big woods. In the boy scouts we used the Squirrel as totem. There were no squirrels in Denmark so we read about them and learnt what we could from that animal.

The idea of using totem is that the qualities and the behaviour are taken as lead and role model. It is quite the same as role models in our days or when the Stone Age hunters pretended they were animals to get under the skin and better understand their prey. In fact it went so far that they became like brothers and begged the animal to forgive when they had to kill it those with no capacity of pretending and being equal call it magic, however no magic catch the prey. Very good knowledge of the animal is needed. Especially when one goes for the big one or for the predator used to fights.

In the days of my boyhood it was natural to hate the Gestapo and the Germans. When they passed by on their trucks we stood behind the corners shouting "Du bist ein Swinehund". Evidently our pronunciation was poor since the soldiers laughed and waved to us. However maybe the black Gestapo would have understood us better, but they passed inside black cars and fast so it was no fun in shouting at them.

I cannot remember all enemies of mankind they told are dangerous. Anyway those days we should hate them all. I mean the yellow people thought to be Huns all of them then the communists and of course and not their methods as such since mankind ever think deep about the roots. There was something about the Slaves too. My foster mother was afraid of beard so he told me never to visit them looking like an Assyrian.

That continued under the "Cold War" when we were not allowed to question either our own hatred or the nature of the other side. It was all black and white and the old methods on our side did not work at all. It was like being in a room with only a keyhole to the enemy on the other side. Gosh, how much imagination can think about in the other room?

The world has not been much more civilised since then. In Denmark today they call it "pianism" when the most fanatical politician Pia Kjersgaard wants all foreigners out of Denmark. There is no sense and intelligence in her arguments. I remember it that some Danes when I was five were looking for my knife when they heard I am from Finland and other called me Mongolian. At that time I did not know my father is Russian. It would have been great fun to tease them. The funniest thing was that they build up their fear when they thought me to be the wild savage with fierce eyes. I do not think they ever really saw me. I am the invisible but not a ghost.

As said we boy scouts did not know that we enjoyed primitive totemism. I wonder how it is with the elderly boys calling their cars Thunderbird, Firebird, Jaguar and the Swedes are more straightforward and technical calling Volvo The Cruiser and SAAB they associate to aeroplanes of the war-like kind I suppose. When I see all those commercials on TV I think of another world of imagination and totem. Over the limit went commercials telling that the computer is faster than light. Then we have all that power in computers. If Aliens see our television they think we are gone mad and humankind must be foolish if that lures them.

Mankind has always named and compared the unknown things with the known. They still do it in science. For the rural people before World War II it was just natural to use their surroundings as known reference. In Sweden at least 80 % lived in the countryside. For the Jesuits in America, Australia and other places the difficulty was that they did not have any references locally so they used references from their homelands. It was not in the interest of the colonialists to see the natives as equal human beings.

There are not many drawings from the early colonialism in America available for me. But I found a Swedish drawing from around 1650 with Indians in loincloth only and feather crown with bow in hand talking with the White Man. The White Man has of course a pistol. In the background two crews are fighting naked. Nothing curious about that. They say our ancestor Celts also fought naked. Maybe their women and mothers told "Boys, You may fight if you wish, but do not come home with dirty and ragged clothes!"

Surely that is just the image they wanted to send home telling about naked wild savages. But I found a couple drawn in watercolours by the skilled John White from 1585-1586. Did John lie or did he draw what he saw? He shows for instance one distinguished old Indian that could be taken for a Roman senator in toga. Then we have to go to the late 19th century where we find plenty of drawings telling about clothed Indians. In the museums there are plenty of reconstructed dresses we know used also by the later Hollywood. We can be sure that they since early times used clothes when needed.

If we analyse love too much it will die or it is transferred to endless quarrel and fights. Many academics think they shall problemize and make theories. There are naturally different viewpoints and focuses. Many academics are Epicureans sitting high above ground watching the poor people down there. The empirical school of Stoic stand in the middle of the world (stoa) feeling what life is like. Others alternate but the main fault in the world of relativity is that we should focus on the object as well as on the surroundings and always tie things to the local environment ... If we want to be objective and scientific.

After the early Jesuits they have made the name-theory. Animal worship-theory says its explanation is found in the primitive custom of naming children after natural objects from some accidental circumstances or fanciful resemblance. Then in confounding these metaphorical names or nicknames with the real objects, i. e. ancestors, and consequently paying to the animals the same reverence they paid their ancestors. 

I must confess I have been worshipping ancestors a lot, because as an engineer I need to use the wisdom of earlier inventors. Some of them from the very early civilisation in fact. We have statues and other things as reminders of ancestors and old women visit the graves.

The Transmigration Theory regards the totem as the bridge over the gap between a clan of men and a species of animals, so that they "become united in kinship and mutual alliance". There is nothing primitive in that. Intelligent people always use pretending and intuition to get under the skin of the problem object. For the rural people it is normally something in the environment.

The Economic Theory made of anthropologists, who hold that the starting-point of social organization was the necessity of procuring food, appears in two forms. The totems originally were the animals or plants on which the local groups of people chiefly subsisted and after which they were named by the neighbouring groups. This is perhaps near the empirical fact that people always are interested in getting food on table the simplest way. The minor part of the population would maybe put the focus on the ritual and spiritual part. The realists need only the instructions how to do it. 

The External Soul Theory believe in the possibility of depositing the souls of living people for safety in external objects such as animals or plants. But not knowing which individual of the species is the receptacle of his soul, the savage spares the whole species from a fear of injuring unwittingly the particular individual with which his fate is bound up it is quite normal to devote ones soul to different things. But such things are as airy as the spirit

The Conception Theory says Totemism has its source in the savage ignorance of paternity. It is a primitive explanation of conception and childbirth, viz, that conception is due to a spirit of an ancestor entering the body of a woman, that she associates it with the object which was nearest her when the child was first felt in the womb. This object is regarded as the deserted receptacle of the spirit. And since the spirits of people of one particular totem are believed to congregate in one spot, and the natives know these spots, the totem of the child can easily be determined.

The Guardian Spirit Theory can be explained in two ways. First by real inheritance, e. g. the guardian spirit of an ancestor is transmitted to his descendants. Hence the clan totem is the hereditary manitou of a family. Father Brun says that the Totemism of French West Africa is essentially familial in the sense of the Roman gens. A. Lang objects to the inheritance of the personal totem by the clan on the ground that mother descent is more primitive than paternal descent. But the objection assumes that Totemism is primitive: a contention by no means established.

About the biggest tribe the Sioux they tell that there was no supreme Great Spirit, as supposed by the whites, no ethical code to their supernaturalism, and no heaven or hell in their spirit world. Among animals the buffalo was naturally held in highest veneration. Since the Great Spirit does not apply to that big people we cannot use it as generalisation as some of the writers do. Anyway there is nothing primitive in using spiritual abstractions. Christianity has no monopoly on such things.

These theories are made high above ordinary people of "fathers" and academics with no aim of understanding the totem. Often words like "savage and primitive" are used to create the distance. The natives have a point that the call it rather "guardian spirit" than god, however the function is quite the same. The romantics Europeans call it Manitou but the spirit has as many names as there are Indian languages. However even when the Christians persuade them to tell it is just like the Christian god it is not the case. Every tribe insists to have its own form.

In Wisconsin there are maybe some Manitou Stones left. The Jesuits did their best to destroy them and as always in the Bible they could find the right lead. Deuteronomy 12: 2&3 order that "Ye shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations ... served their gods, upon the high mountains ... and hills ... overthrow their altars and destroy the graven images (i.e. sacred stones) of their gods ..."

During the 8th century AD, this tradition was again in evidence as a Papal decree brought to Ireland by the Catholic missionaries who were to "sanctify the pagan hilltops" and also urged to build churches wherever they found 'standing stones'. Nine centuries later, this mindset would be zealously transported to the New World by the Jesuit Order. In Europe we have only a few clear standing stone or signpost of a village left. Maybe the church destroyed them where they could we should maybe mention that we see the signpost in the Hittitian culture in second millennium BC.

From the numerous descriptions of Native American people and customs recorded in the Jesuit Relations, there is little doubt that distinct Manitou stones were a commonly recognised icon which called attention to certain places; places of spiritual importance to the Native Americans and recognised as such by the Jesuit priests. This suggest that even in Europe the standing stone was used for more than marking a claim or the village protecting idol. In the folk memory we have the Herm = standing stone or mound on which stones were thrown. That warned for road robbery telling about an earlier murder. At the same time they were landmarks for the travellers.

An example of the Manitou Stone is that on each side of a dangerous stream. Surely it was just warning post "Look out". The Indians maybe called it "evil spirits" and the Jesuits heard it as primitive savage animism. When it was just a rational warning in their language. Manitou has many synonyms and is different in other parts of America. The culture crash is between the urban and the rural animated language.

When I read about Great Spirit and even Manitou I cannot help that the late descriptions of Indian spirituality sounds like mixed Indian culture and Christianity. The Sioux seem to have been less influenced by that. Then it is difficult if the Indians wanted to be like the Christians or if the Jesuits wanted to see Christianity in the Indian culture?

Mankind needs individually and collectively abstract logic rooms to sort out what we put in focus. Computers also work that way. Amulets, standing stones and whatever we can think of are used to manifest something we want to keep in memory. We need symbol acts to manifest certain events and things. The totem was the Indian term for the label on some of these phenomenons. The important thing was the phenomenon and there the focus should be. If the church and some academics put their own labels on just the totem-label they are practising politics and not understanding the phenomenon.

Mankind also needs words for things and abstractions. From early times they animated and took known examples from the surroundings. Animated words give the dynamic of something living and that could look like something spiritual. Still it is the practical use and the real world that should be in focus. Spirits can not do anything!

Non-biased science

I think most people agree that science should be objective, non-biased and stick to relative facts. As we have seen above the concept totem belongs closely only to some native tribes. Then it can not be used for general conclusions and synthesis without a better definition. Some writers try to apply it whenever they meet rural people and then the use become biased and deterrent.

According to Einstein the relativity should be applied on the homogenous local field. Obviously we can not describe the rural and the urban society from the same reference level. We have to tie it to time and space without valuations. One of the few scientific concepts we can use is sustainability. Normally rural societies have greater sustainability than technological urban societies consuming land for roads, plants, and buildings not only in locally but also for instance consuming species and rainforests far from the cities.

Objectively it is not wise to talk about "high culture" without any reference and terms of sustainability. If we want to use the concept "totem" we should define it so it could be used for instance regarding the Catholic Church also. There are a lot of totems in the church. The church almost hates rural fertility and animals, but worship ancestors. It started with the Romans animated deities of virtues and qualities as human idols. The Catholic Church turned the use to Saints and Holly Person so in the end there was tens of thousands of them.

Unfortunately much of the science is not grounded and tied to references. That means, "it flies high in the sky" and is a matter of opinion and not of proven science.

Correct science would try to understand and categorise development of civilisation we all crawl before we walk. According to relativity every size of civilisation generate its own kind of inner environment due to available technology and environment. It is just stupid to class some culture higher than others are. As far as we can see the western civilisation is predestined to pollute, consume and destroy the biosphere in time. Should we call that kind of "evolution" higher than sustainable rural cultures that consumes less and stay longer?

We need a vocabulary and terms that could be used everywhere and in every time. Then we can understand the past and other civilisations. We need no conceited Westerners to tell that they are better than others are. We need to be equal and on terms with other cultures as well as our ancestors who are steps on the way to our culture. We need no predefined primitivity and deterrent labels on the past.

The animated language goes deeper into living processes than the Western rational language. Westerners use only one half of the brains while the older cultures used both and that includes the imagination and picture memory in the other brain half. It is quite a culture crash when we realise that we are a part of the living whole.

It seems that they invented place names in Bronze Age. They set up a stone or maybe a pole at the village and gave it a name "This place works in the name of Idol". In some places they carved a face in the stone. We would not call it totem but sign post. Outside my little town there are signpost on every road leading to inner town. They are all some kind of label. In some places they have images and other information about the place. I can not see there is any difference between the ancient "Head", the Totem pole and our signposts. The analysing language should reflect that.

We can mark that every kind of monument and rock-carvings are at the same time claims that the local people "own the land". Here on Dal the old tradition says, "we get the land as a loan when we are born and should return it in the same condition as we got it". The Church tells that from soil we came and to soil we return. In the meantime we are living of what the soil can give. The Bible tells that we should love other people as we love ourselves. Too many Christians forgot that when they came out in the wilderness among "savages". The UN articles about Human Rights and tells about equality and whatever that means.

The Sumerian folk memory tells more than 5000 years ago that woman learnt to store food watching the fox Kiel. They also remembered that there has been a time when they used the digging stick. Folk memory has no timeline so that could be very far back. In South Africa we find rock-carvings showing Mother Invention with a weight on the stick. Surely one of her early inventions besides what she needed in the household more than 20000 years ago. 

The stick was surely the most important tool those days to get food on table. The male hunting was very hazardous so the pressure was on Mother Invention. On the early rock-carvings we see the hunter or better hunters running in pack with three maybe four spears in the hand. Precisely the same scene we can watch today on some TV-programs of today. The program told how difficult and hard hunting is. They did not recognise that that is sustainable technology and living.

Many analysing academics surely put on the label = totem that this is primitive behaviour. I think we owe our ancestors much credit and admiration because they invented the tools that lead to civilisation. Among the carpenter's tool we find several models they invented more than 5000 years ago. The axe began more than a million years ago when they invented the hand wedge with the arm as shaft.

From Australia and their Dreamtime we can take this cut from a present folk memory:

"Gwion Gwion is the name of a long-beaked bird which pecks at the rock face to catch insects, and pecks into tissue, sometimes drawing blood. In Ngarinyin cosmology the Gwion Gwion started out as a spirit-man. He cracked open rocks to reveal the stone tools locked inside, the gimbu (knife), spear point and axe. The gimbu was then able to be used for initiation, and with the other stone tool technology, for hunting and gathering."

In the short piece we see how focus change from the bird to man and mankind and everyday life. That is because the Dreamtime is endless of course since time is added all the time. Dreamtime has no timeline and there is not border/ step between the idea and reality. The Australians have their language and we have ours. We hardly understand that our ancestors for instance the Celts were using the concept worlds instead for grammatical tenses like past tense, future tense and present time. For people living at that time it was no problem to move between the past world/grave and the present.

Many writers set focus on the abstraction instead for on the reality behind. Many philosophers through the ages have done the same mistake by believing that the word as such is reality. That means, "when the word is outspoken the problem is solved", they think. The Sumerians told that the hero Gilgamesh fell in dreams when the problems came and then his mate Enkidu (the first to do it) did the hard work. In our words this means split of mind and body. In reality we cannot make the split and the ideas of the mind need hard work to get results. Normally the outcome is in the focus for the people.

The word Algonquin means "At the place of spearing fishes and eels". The meaning tells about people living in the countryside and that is reflected in their language that tells, "nature is our brother". Environment, available technology and size of population decide what kind of culture grows in a certain place. It can be measured only within the frames of the place. It is just cultural imperialism if urban people try to apply urban frames on the countryside. And it is just stupid foolishness.

Because the Northern climates made agriculture difficult, the Algonquin were a semi-nomadic people, moving their encampments from one place to the next in search of food, which came from hunting, trapping, fishing and the gathering of various plant roots, seeds, wild rice and berries. They travelled on foot and by birchbark canoe in the summer months, and used toboggans and snowshoes in the winter. Their clothes were made from animal skins, as were their tents, also known as wigwams; sometimes also covered with birchbark.

Generally the concept "totem" could only be applied to the environment where it is used. We should be careful with words and clearly see that totem is a label or signpost telling about the people and about the icons they use in their society. Icon stands for processes in the same way we use it in pour computer programs. The icon could be described with symbols/ images but they need to be in a string before we get any meaning out of it. The icon contends one or more describing strings.

Many opportunities to see totemism, fetishism and animism in these rock-carvings from Backa Bohuslen

These rock-carvings are somewhere between animated and humanised language and script. The lose figures we can only partly identify as symbols, icons or simply pictures of known things. A few symbols we can identify as script symbols since we can find them in for instance Minoan and Hittitian script. But without order or leading string we can not see a meaning in it. Still for the people those days there was a clear meaning in it. We are the fools or the untrained and do not have the key. There is no reason that we should call them primitive since we are the uneducated about this picture.

We can see the beginning script in strings above the boats. Like Hittitian they connect the symbols in rows and that is the beginning of ordinary script. The boats with symbols and icons are the Nordic Script we can compare with Egyptian season boats. There are signs of "to and fro" in stem and stern and we can pretend that they are sailing on the Time River. The cargo tells us which part of the year the ships represent. On Dal we have some rock-carvings with better order. When we know what it is all about we can understand the content but not translate in detail.

In Utah there are many rock-carvings with the same kind of many images in disorder. Only a few are arranged in order. There are many animals and that is natural in the human environment those days. We can be sure that there was a rational meaning and use of the carvings if we only knew what they stand for in their everyday life. On some rock-carvings there are rows of sheep and then we think of the Sheep-eaters that followed and lived on the mountain sheep. In northern Scandinavia they followed the reindeer and are called Sames by themselves and Laps by those indoctrinated by the Romans.

Mankind has the habit of humanising everything. Soon they humanised even the early gods or idols and at least nobility became god-begotten with some animal god as source. Some animals with human mind were tamed. The horse became a friend that act like a human horse. Now they try to teach some apes to be human. Man learnt a lot from the animals but did not quite become more animal than before. The Cat is the only animal I know of that began to use mankind as a servant and source of food.

Search Catholic totemism

Indian clothing

On this is a fantastic collection of photos showing the Totem Pole of today.

About Australian natives on this site