Native students from Alaska, the second-largest indigenous group at Colorado’s Fort Lewis College (FLC), got some special recognition January 16 at FLC’s Native American Center when a totem pole, familiar symbol of Native America’s coastal North, was introduced to admirers.
“Being so far away from home can be difficult for students and we’re hopeful that this totem pole will bring a little familiarity and comfort to our Alaskan students, even those from tribes that don’t have totem poles,” said Mitch Davis, FLC public affairs officer.
The 92 Native Alaskans from 47 tribes are outnumbered only by 461 Navajo students at FLC, Davis said. Native students represent about one-fourth of FLC’s total student body of 3,800, at least in part because Native students from around the country receive tuition waivers through treaty and trust agreements at Fort Lewis College.
The totem pole to recognize Native Alaskan students was carved from red cedar and is “pretty hefty” he said. The heavy pole, carved with symbols, traveled from Washington state to FLC in Durango, where it will stay in the center, the site of a welcoming that was “fun for everybody,” Davis said.
Yvonne Bilinski, Navajo, Native American Center director at Fort Lewis College, talked with David Boxley, Tsimshian, who carved a totem pole that will be placed in the center and who sized it at eight feet to accommodate the ceiling’s height. The totem pole was introduced to the college and community at an event January 16.
Among the dances performed at the totem’s unveiling were the Chief’s Headdress Dance and Raven Dance, performed by David Boxley, Tsimshian, a carver from Washington state, and his dance troupe, Git Hoan. Boxley performed the Knife Carver’s Dance, which tells the story of selecting the tree to carve, bringing it back, and carving it, Davis explained.
The totem pole has “no religious meaning,” Boxley said at the ceremony where Liz Perrault, Cherokee, Native American advisor at FLC, explained its general symbolism.
Mountains represented by jagged shapes are an important feature in both Alaska and the Four Corners area, where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet and where “we have several of the local tribes’ sacred mountains,” she said.
The symbol of the bear connotes strength in some cultures and protection in others, and “both qualities are important to have when attending school and being far from your homeland,” Perrault said. “We want to be a place they can turn to in order to find shelter and security.”
The eagle, “a strong symbol for most tribes across North America and Alaska,” is also depicted, she said, recalling a story in which a mouse can only see about five feet ahead “but an eagle flying in the sky can see the whole scope of things. The path, in all directions, is laid out and in view.”
“We [at the center] sometimes feel like the eagle and are able to give our students advice because we can see a path laid out, and secondly, we want our students to be the eagle,” she said. “We believe through education, one can learn to visualize the right path in life and be most adept to take that path.”
“The idea of the eagle complements the symbol of the arrowhead,” Perrault said. “It is a powerful symbol for most tribes. It can also represent survival. Many tribes used the arrowhead to hunt and provide for their families, just as one can use their education to provide a better life.”
Before the official unveiling, Yvonne Bilinski, Navajo, the center’s director, noted that it’s difficult to find a symbol that can apply to all tribes, pointing out that the powwow—most often regarded as the most universally “Native” representation—has limitations as well, since, for one reason, not all tribes are “powwow tribes.”
A braid atop the totem pole illustrates the problem of trying to find a universal symbol, in that it incorporates some tribal nations’ medicine wheel colors, but not the wheel itself.
“We briefly discussed including a medicine wheel on the pole; however, we believe that although many tribes are incorporating them into their culture, they are specific to some regions,” Perrault said. She explained that they chose the braid as a symbol instead to represent interconnectedness, while the medicine wheel colors of some tribes—black, red, yellow and white—represent “our students’ overall health and well-being” and some students’ plans to become healers.
Addressing some 75 college and community leaders at the unveiling, Davis said, “Our new totem pole is a big—literally and symbolically—addition to the Native American Center and Fort Lewis College.”