Relational Ways of Seeing — Totem Bight

This is a picture of a totem we took at the Totem Bight State Historical Park, which is north of Ketchikan in Alaska. It is one of my favorite places.

The environment is a rain forest so it is full of awesome trees. Like this one.

Besides the great trees and plants, the park is full of totems carved by the Tlingit people. To understand this art it is necessary to understand an Indigenous way of viewing reality which is based on the masterful cultivation of relations with the sentient beings that share the environment and sustain human life. Here is my favorite quote by Indigenous researcher Shawn Wilson, whose book Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods rocked my world, informed my dissertation, and changed my worldview.

Now as you open your eyes, you can see all of the things that are around you. What you see is their physical form, but you realize that this form is really just the web of relations that have taken on a familiar shape. Every individual thing that you see around you is really just a huge knot—a point where thousands and millions of relationships come together. These relationships come to you from the past, from the present and from your future. This is what surrounds us, and forms us, our world, our cosmos and our reality. We could not be without being in relationship with everything that surrounds and is within us. Our reality, our ontology is the relationships.[1]

 


The world is more complex than we have been led to believe. In fact, it is alive with spirits and ancestors, and other forms of consciousness we call nature. The truth is that our entire lives are interconnected with, and dependent upon, the relationships we are able to sustain with these other aspects of the multiverse.

Take this example: You have bacteria in your stomach that you can’t see without a microscope, but they are there. The ones that make you sick can be called devils. The ones that help you digest your food so that you feel good can be called angels. You are in relationship with the bacteria that live your body whether you want to acknowledge their existence or not. The same can be said about the myriad of lifeforms with whom we share the environment. We can, and I do, call them persons, as described by researcher Graham Harvey as “other than human”[2] entities that exhibit agency, and with whom one can commune with…or talk to and get some kind of response that can be empirically perceived, often through the phenomenon of synchronicity.

This includes those other than human persons with whom we share the earth, such as the plants, insects, and animals who are members of our planetary family. Some of these persons we lovingly we call our pets, and some also become our food. It also includes those non-corporeal persons that are our ancestors, and our beloved dead, those entities that can be called “spirits” and “ghosts,” and those we call deities. It also describes the earth herself and all of her devic entities, and includes the grander persons of her manifestations, such as the ocean, the mountains, the volcanoes, the winds, and the weather — hopefully, you get the idea here.

Indigenous societies, to varying degrees, understand the interrelational and interconnected reality we humans find ourselves in, and make culture that prioritizes the establishment of beneficial relations with the persons who are a part of the environment that sustain human societies. These societies traditionally honor those members who are able to cultivate masterful access to that relational wisdom, such as the shaman, and the healer, etc., who spend time honoring the life-ways, medicines, and power of those relations that they are in communion with – the bear, the wolf, the raven, the salmon, the eagle, which are evident in the totems.

Let’s look again at the totem. It is acknowledging links in a chain of relations that give identity and power to a community. This way of seeing and understanding reality represents a masterful evolutionary strategy for human culture-making.

I think we modern Western people better start taking some notes.

This last picture is of the raven totem that we took. I was honored to notice that we caught a raven on the wing  at the time! Damn! It actually took us a few years to notice that. Synchronicity is evidence that spirit or the relations are talking back — that your consciousness has been acknowledged as you have expressed gratitude that acknowledges another person or aspect of nature. So the raven sits upon the raven totem as a gift to our journey into the rain forest. Good lord, seriously! I really haven’t recovered from that yet. Bless.

[1] Wilson, Research Is Ceremony, 76.

[2] Harvey, Animism, xvii.

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