In the fall of 2005, I was given a 300+ year-old, 18-foot-long, red cedar log from a jumbled pile in the log yard of the Oeser Company in Bellingham,WA. A tag on the log indicated that it had been cut down by Georgia Pacific in 1982 at the base of the Twin Sisters Range in Whatcom County, WA. near the confluence of Hayden and Fish Creeks.
Being the custodian of this magnificent piece of wood inspired my imagination and coalesced several things dear to my heart—carving wood, love of animals, devotion to conservation, and respect for the traditions of the Northwest coast Native People. I decided to carve a story pole in the tradition of the original inhabitants of this land I now call home. The figures on the pole tell a story about the environmental web of which we are all a part.
Concerned about cultural infringement, I asked my friend and much-respected elder of the Lummi Nation, Darrell Hillaire, to come and see what I was doing. The first question he asked was: “Do the animals speak to you?” I had not thought of it that way, but, on a moment’s reflection, I answered “yes,” though his meaning was not completely clear to me.
After a day of carving, I would lay in bed thinking “What comes next? How do I make a transition? How do I handle a knotty problem? How do I mend a screwup?” In the morning I would awake with an answer, or at least a lead. Provoked by Darrell’s question, I realized that the animals were indeed speaking to me.
The pole depicts an environmental morality tale. I sometimes tell people that I just wrote an “ancient” legend, something I knew to be true. And something that I am quite sure Native Peoples of the Pacific Northwest have known for eons to be true. Again, the animals were speaking to me.
On June 27, 2009, a community of friends moved the Twin Bear Story Pole on a sailboat trailer from my workshop to its permanent home next to Bellingham’s Children’s Museum in the Whatcom Museum Light Catcher building. With ropes, push sticks and many hands, we raised the pole in much the same way, I suspect, that Native Peoples did for centuries along the North Pacific coast. On the opening day of the new Whatcom Museum, November 14, 2009, three generations from the Lummi Nation sang and drummed a blessing of the Twin Bear Story Pole including Lummi Nation Cultural Director James “Uncle Smitty” Hillaire, his wife, known to all as Aunt Lutie, and their family.
The twin baby bears in the mother bear’s womb at the base of the pole are a symbol of the fecundity of nature that we are all responsible for protecting.
THE STORY OF THE TWIN BEAR POLE
A very long time ago, Raven sat on a sandstone cliff overlooking the Nooksack River. Raven was a curious—some would say mischievous—fellow. As he surveyed the landscape from his lofty perch, everything seemed entirely too calm and orderly for his taste. Raven was bored. He decided to fly to a world far away and bring back Humans to this Earth. Certainly that would shake things up and make life more interesting.
Raven knew that for Humans to get along on Earth, they would need some help. Humans do not have thick fur like Bear to keep them warm, and they can’t swim in the ocean like Orca. So from that far away world, Raven carried a cedar cone in his beak. From the seeds of that cone would grow giant cedar trees, and Humans would have wooden beams for houses, cedar bark for clothing, and tree trunks for canoes.
Because Humans could not fly or run very fast, they would have trouble catching food. So Raven went to the Salmon People and asked if they would swim up the rivers right to where Humans lived. The Salmon People were wary. Why should they make it easy for Humans to eat them? Raven had to bargain hard. He promised to make the Salmon People into five races, each distinctively beautiful and fit to survive. Raven also promised that Humans would always treat the Salmon People with respect.
Raven knew that Humans would need wisdom to survive on Earth. So Raven went to owl, who had great wisdom. He asked Owl to share some wisdom with Humans. Owl was skeptical. She thought sharing with Humans would be a waste of good wisdom. But Raven was cunning and convinced Owl that even a little wisdom for Humans would be a great improvement.
Raven understood that if Humans were going to paddle their cedar canoes in the ocean, they would have to live in harmony, and with respect, for Orca, the most powerful creature of the sea. Raven also understood that if Humans were going to live in their cedar homes in the forests, they would have to live in harmony, and with respect, for Bear, the most powerful creature of the forest.
If Humans cease to respect Orca and Bear, Salmon will no longer swim up the rivers. Cedar trees will stop growing straight and tall as needed for houses, canoes, and story poles. Humans will no longer be part of the Earth Community. Some Humans have come to think that they no longer need the Salmon People to return, the cedars to grow tall and straight, the wisdom of Owl or membership in the Earth community. Some have stopped respecting Orca and Bear. But the truth is, Humans need the natural world just as much today as when Raven brought them, and a cedar cone, to this Earth.
Rand Jack is a bird carver, conservationist, retired teacher, lawyer, traveler, nature lover, liberal activist and doting grandfather. “Spending a year carving an 18 foot story pole was in itself a great adventure and honor.”