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Healing Totem Pole Heads to National Library of Medicine

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A healing totem pole is traveling cross-country to the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in Bethesda, Maryland, receiving traditional blessings from nine tribes along the way.

Carved with stories emblematic of "healing, hope and knowledge," the totem will be featured in the Library’s new exhibition, “Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness,” opening free to the public on October 6.

The pole's master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Indian Nation and other tribal members will travel the 4,400 miles over three weeks with the totem pole from its starting point in Semiahmoo, Washington. There, the totem will receive its first traditional blessing by the Lummi Nation on September 12.

The following day, James will speak at a blessing ceremony in downtown Seattle. The Seattle event is sponsored by the NLM, the University of Washington Libraries and the Native American Land Conservancy (NALC), a co-sponsor of the journey. The NALC is a 501c3 intertribal organization dedicated to the preservation of American Indian ancestral knowledge and the protective management of endangered American Indian sacred sites and areas.

James is a lineal nephew of Chief Seattle, for whom the city of Seattle was named. He is the head carver for the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation. James' previous work includes healing totems to honor the victims of the September 11th attacks at each of the 9/11 sites. Those totems are now installed in Arrow Park in New York, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

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From Seattle, the totem will pass through a dozen states, stopping for blessing ceremonies in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, Connecticut and lastly Maryland.

Twenty feet in length and carved from a 500-year-old red cedar—legally harvested from a forest near the Lummi Nation Reservation—the totem represents James' vision and voice, as well as the voice of his tribe and of the Algonquin Nation. The story at the top of the totem tells the Algonquin story of the Medicine Woman in the Moon. It teaches people to appreciate and protect their knowledge, and to recognize that some questions may take a long time to be answered, states the NLM press release.

The “Native Voices” exhibition will examine Native concepts of health and illness and show how those concepts are closely tied to community, spirit and the land.

“The exhibition honors the Native tradition of oral history and builds a unique collection of information that will enhance the understanding of healing and medicine, and the health issues affecting Native communities,” explained Donald A.B. Lindberg, director of the NLM, in a press release. “This is in keeping with the Library’s mission of collecting, organizing, and preserving medical information to improve public health. We’re excited to open this exhibition and to do it during the year the Library celebrates its 175th anniversary.”

The exhibit will feature interviews and works of art from Native people living on reservations, in tribal villages and cities. The individual stories will highlight how epidemics, government policies, the loss of land and the inhibition of Native culture impact the health of people and communities. "The exhibition also will present contemporary stories of renaissance, recovery and self-determination," states the NLM release. The Library is planning an online version of “Native Voices,” as well as a version displayed on banners that will travel around the country.

For more about James and the totem, visit the Library’s healing totem blog at