By Robin R. R. Gray
Meanwhile, in true paradoxical fashion, the image of the totem pole was being appropriated by the state as a signifier of Canadian-ness and the task of achieving this level of image making was accomplished mainly through the mass-production of miniature totem poles for the tourist art market. Thus, while Northwest Coast First Nations were being penalized for practicing their so-called “backward” cultures, non-Indigenous peoples were commodifying their cultural heritage, like the totem pole, for monetary gain. In so doing, the totem pole has been taken out of context through displacement, through the Western curatorial practice of preservation and through the misrepresentation of its image as a symbol of primitive and universal Indigeneity or as an icon of Canadian identity. When anything is taken out of context, misrepresentation is bound to occur. No people know this more than Indigenous peoples.
What about the phrase "low man on the totem pole"?
In fact, in one online forum a commenter asks whether it is appropriate or not to use the phrase. Multiple responses arose but they all utilized a linear model for explanation. For example, to avoid being labeled discriminatory many of the anonymous online forum participants simply inverted the linear hierarchy to state that they “heard” that the lowest figure is actually most revered since it is “closest to the land.” Therefore, the commentators insisted, they are actually being “respectful” to a monolithic “Native American culture,” so it is okay to use the phrase, “low man on the/a totem pole.” Yet, following this logic, people would then start saying “high man on the totem pole,” in order to convey what they intended: hierarchy and disempowerment. One must ask, why won’t “lowest rung on the ladder” suffice? Doesn’t this make more sense? Ladders you actually climb, totem poles you don’t.