Early Christian Missionaries to the Northwest Coast Indians often believed that totem poles were pagan idols that must be abandoned by their converts. However, totem poles were never worshipped, and now in more enlightened times, Christians have come to celebrate the spirituality of the native stories told in totems. Blending Christian tradition and native culture, David Fison, totem carver and United Methodist pastor, has reinterpreted the story of Holy Week and Easter in this totem pole, using symbols of the native peoples of this Great Land. Look closely and you will see the elements of the traditional story. Pay attention to the carvings along the sides of the pole as well as the primary images in the front.
Salmon and berries replace the bread and wine of Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples. The howls of a wolf take the place of a rooster’s crow. The disciples sleep beside Jesus as he prays. Jesus holds a cup of sorrows. Judas, wearing a beaded necklace of thirty shells, betrays Jesus with a kiss. The disciples flee and Peter sheds a tear. See Pilate washing his hands of his verdict, and Jesus, whipped and bound by the soldiers, is nailed to a cross, wearing a devil’s club hat. The tomb is placed between the crucified and resurrected Christ, its emptiness giving hope to the women who came on Sunday morning to anoint the body. Raven, represent God’s Holy Spirit, speaks a reassuring word to the women as Jesus ascends to heaven, the trifold hands representing the Trinity of Creator, Savior, and Holy Spirit.
Pastor Fison wrote a poem that tells the story in more detail. It includes these stanzas describing the top of the totem:
“Now go and tell His followers
He is risen from the dead!
They’ll see Him when they gather
At the mountain where He said.”
When they gather at the mountain,
The Risen Savior they see,
Surrounded by the shining sun;
“Light of The World” is He!
His arms reach out toward them,
A Trinity of heavenly helping hands.
His followers fall down in worship,
Awaiting His commands.
Jesus tells of a promise,
“All power is given me!
Soon, you’ll have the Holy Spirit,
And my witnesses you’ll be.”
“Make followers of all tribes;
Go then and baptize too.
Teach them to obey everything
That I have asked of you.”
“And I will be with you always
To the end of all things!”
He lifts His hands and blesses them
And is taken as with wings.
This Easter totem is a replica of the original, which graces the sanctuary of Saint John United Methodist Church. If the church is open, you are invited to come inside and see it. What a blessing it is to be able to share the story of Easter, and the story of Christmas, with these two totems.
Mary Ann Yates, a Tsimshian elder of Metlakatla, and her husband Rev. Doug Yates, Sr., learned of Rev. Fison’s two sacred totem poles. Recognizing the gift of the carver, they offered to adopt David. He happily agreed, and on April 28, 2001, Pastor Fison became an adopted member of the Killer Whale Clan of the Tsimshian people. His tribal name is NADAAM NLOMSK, which means “Carver of Sacred Things.”