The two totem poles towering just south of the Burke Museum’s entrance are replicas. But calling them such, as the explanatory plaque in front of them does, is too simplistic. They stand on their own as masterworks, each detail coaxed from the soft, coniferous trunks in the early 70s.
In the decades since Bill Holm carved the totems for the museum, the wind and rain have left them looking aged. Fine green lichen covers each creature — the mythical sea bear in the Tsimshain memorial pole, whale-man on the Haida house front pole. Anywhere the green is absent, the wood has faded to a mellow grey. The poles sit, indisputably impressive, but naturalized in the spot. They appear as things meant to be where they are.
Live cedar trees surround them, their branches wreathing the carvings in a deeper green. Both the living trees and the carved ones will remain long after the carver, Holm, has moved on.
Now 88, Holm was no stranger to the museum when he made those poles more than 40 years ago. When he first walked through its doors, he was an asthmatic 12-year-old from Montana.
His parents brought him to the coast hoping the move would sooth his lungs. They brought him to the museum hoping its contents would satisfy his curiosity for Native American culture.
The asthma settled down right away; the curiosity never did. It blossomed into a lifestyle, teaching career and artistic passion. His is a journey impossible to quantify, except to say it is lifelong. Nuu-chah-nulth artist Joe David, a longtime friend of his, had only two words of advice for a writer attempting to condense Holm’s legacy to words: “Good luck.”
Photo: Allyce Andrew
Heavy-handed lauding would only embarrass Holm, David said. He isn’t the kind of person who flaunts his influence. Still, nearly everyone close to Holm speaks of his generosity, his unshakable willingness to teach the curious. His is a brand of modesty that — quite ironically — merits praise.
“He’s one of the most truly humble people I know,” David said. Holm would cringe at that description.
In the 75 years since he wandered, wide-eyed, into the Burke Museum, Holm never stopped learning, teaching or making. This unquenchable thirst for a culture outside his birthright steered Holm down a path few, if any, Caucasians have walked.
He stands in a delicate position at the confluence of several ethnicities. During those 76 years, he has been more than a teacher of art history, more than an adroit anthropologist, more than a creator of elegant things. He is a white participant in Native American tradition. His fervor flows far beyond the artistry of Native artifacts, into the societies that honed the styles over centuries.
Holm’s steadfast ardor for native art opened doors for him. Behind those doors lay wisdom few white people have ever been privy to.
The knowledge does not belong to him — Holm is keenly aware of that. The cultures he studies and the artifacts he replicates are the property of native peoples. He just happens to know a great deal about them. He carved those totems in the front of the Burke, but their designs are the intellectual property of the Haida and the Tsimshain.
“In reality I don’t own these things,” Holm said. “They’re all second-hand for me.”
Many have misinterpreted his role, and the influence of his work. Every time he talks about it, or teaches it, he takes a risk. The wrong turn of a phrase could inflate the importance to his work, or misconstrue Native American efforts as trivial.
“I’m walking a real tightrope, and I have to keep my balance on that tightrope in order to keep good relations with the Native People,” he said.
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