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Healing Totem

Photo of totem pole
Totem Pole

Beside a lake in a forest not far from Ground Zero stands a 13-foot totem pole of red, black, white, and yellow. A gift from the Lummi Nation—a Native American Tribe from Washington State—the pole stands within a bereavement camp for children; many who lost parents in the September 11th terrorist attacks found solace here. The colors of the pole represent the four races, all of which suffered losses in the tragedy. There is an eagle, the embodiment of male power; it is for the fathers lost that day. The bear mother represents females. And the bear cub is for the children—those that perished and those left behind.

Jewell James, a carver from the House of Tears Carvers, agreed to carve the healing pole and to transport it across the country for free. It just made sense to him. As a Lummi Nation member, James was all too familiar with grieving over desecrated land. He has been working daily with his tribe to restore a dug-up burial ground, and to buy back sacred forestland that the Lummis use for spiritual, cultural, and economic reasons. He realized that Ground Zero was sacred land to many as well.

Grieving was also a very personal, very real part of his life. James lost two of his children in startlingly similar situations: both were 19; both were killed by automobile accidents; both were killed close to home. James felt that Native Americans—who share a history of grief and emphasize community healing—possessed knowledge they could share with others. Native Americans believe that a totem pole, as a repository of prayers and blessings, can help heal the bereaved.

But the story goes back even further, before September 11th. The pole stands within Sterling Forest, considered the "sister forest" of Arlecho Creek Forest, a land that has tremendous cultural, archaeological and spiritual importance for the Lummi people. The Lummis on the West Coast, and concerned citizens on the East Coast, are both in the process of buying back their respective lands from private companies, and are working together to save both and exchange ideas. The plan had been to erect two totem poles—one in each forest—that would face one another across the country.

The September 11th tragedy sped up the process. The Lummi carvers shaped a 500-year-old old growth cedar log, and brought it across the country—from Washington to New York State—following a route akin to the reverse of that of Lewis and Clark. The caravan stopped along the way to visit the same Native American Tribes that would have greeted the explorers 200 years ago, asking the tribes to imbue the pole with blessings and prayers. The pole made it to Sterling Forest in time for the 1-year anniversary of the tragedy, where it now stands permanently as an offering to the children from those who understand and have lived through tremendous grief.

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