Now I’m Busy Making a Better Name
As told by Indian chief William Jeffrey
THE Museum of Northern British Columbia published in 1982 the booklet Totem Poles of Prince Rupert. Of the 22 totem poles pictured in it, 15 were carved by me. Prince Rupert contains one of the largest collections of standing poles, ranging from 30 to 70 feet (10 to 20 m) in height, and more than 20 of them are my work.
I did not, however, begin carving poles full time until my retirement in 1960, and then I mainly carved poles to replace the original ones lost through weathering and decay. I carved poles for museums around the world and for special displays such as those in Prince Rupert. Whereas many poles could be bought for a thousand dollars, mine sold for $12,000 and more because of their quality. From many entries, one of my poles was selected to be the centennial pole for the 1871-1971 British Columbia Centennial. Another 22-inch pole I carved out of one piece of jade. It took me nine months to carve, is valued at $75,000 and is now on display at Birks in Vancouver.
So I’ve already made a name for myself as a master carver of totem poles. But now I’m busy making a better name.
Let’s start at the beginning—a beginning that in itself was out of the ordinary. I was born in 1899, just north of the village of Port Simpson in British Columbia. Not only were my parents Indians of the Tsimshian nation but they also were of chieftain lineage. This put me in line to be a hereditary high chief.
I was raised by my grandparents—while hunting, my father had died in a fall from a cliff. I remember that when I was still little my grandfather put a cutting tool in my hand, gave me some wood and started me carving. He gave me some instruction in carving totem poles. I showed an aptitude for it, but the serious carving mentioned above was to wait many years.
After my grandparents died, I attended a boarding school for orphans, and later an Indian residential school from 1914-17. I wanted to go on to college and be a solicitor, but if Indians went to college they had to study to be preachers. You see, by this time the Indians had been put in reservations, and these reservations were dealt out like playing cards to the different churches—one to the Methodists, another to the United Church, another to the Salvation Army, another to the Catholics, and so on. Mine was turned over to the Methodists. Each reservation had its own parochial school. The teachers were not really qualified, the teaching was of poor quality, and at that time Indians were not allowed to attend the public schools.
I wanted to see these restrictions removed. With this in view, in 1930 three other Indians and I created the Indian Native Brotherhood of British Columbia. As a representative of this brotherhood I started negotiating Indian problems in the parliament at Ottawa. Before going, I collected facts about the condition of the Indians in British Columbia—facts about the Indians in the hospitals, conditions in the schools, what the churches were doing for them, the work available for them, the need of suitable pensions for the elderly, the hereditary land rights of the Indians, even the discrimination against the Indians in securing hunting and fishing licenses.
The Honourable Crerar was Minister of Indian Affairs in 1940 when I appeared in the House of Commons. Religious denominations in Canada had submitted a report claiming that Indians could not learn.
I gave examples of Indians who had achieved prominence through their accomplishments in many fields and continued: “Without any consultation with us, you took away our land and put us on reservations. You gave us religion, and its clergymen burned our totem poles, saying we worshiped them. This was not so, for they were our memorials and our landmarks. You have removed them and stolen our land. You gave us the Bible—there is nothing wrong with the Bible—but you misused it and did not follow it yourselves.”
Soon things began to change. Indian children all across Canada were allowed to go to the public schools and to continue on in the colleges. Other rights for the Indians followed—hunting and fishing licenses, power to negotiate prices for their fish, better working conditions in canneries, job-training programs, and others.
My last negotiations were concerning the land, a settlement for the Indians who had been deprived of their land and herded onto reservations. Down to the present time, no concrete agreement on this issue has been reached between Ottawa and the native Indians.
For the past several years I had been hearing about another government that would bring peace and justice to peoples of all races, nationalities, creeds and colors.
I was first introduced to this message in 1930. I was living in Kispiox and was just leaving my house, briefcase in hand, on my way to represent the Brotherhood and fight for Indian rights. Frank Franske met me and said: “Do you want to know the truth that will make you free?” He started witnessing to me. He was a traveling representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ten years later I lived in Port Edward, and a Witness named Leonard Seiman had a weekly Bible study with my family. He had to walk 12 miles (19 km) one way, 24 miles (38 km) round trip, but he never missed a week! Eventually my wife became a Witness, and several of my sons and daughters did also. I supplied boats and food for the traveling overseers to witness up and down the coast.
For some 30 years now I had been doing all kinds of work—hunting, fishing, trapping, mining, logging, working in a sawmill, as a building contractor and doing other jobs—to support my family of a wife, six sons and four daughters. This, along with my work with the Brotherhood, had swallowed up my time. But now, finally, in 1953, I was baptized. That year I attended an international assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York’s Yankee Stadium. For the first time I saw real brotherhood—all races meeting peacefully, no prejudice because of skin color, a true unity.
From that time on, it was full steam ahead for me. I preached to all who would listen, especially to my native people. By boat I took my family to isolated Indian villages along the coast of Prince Rupert, preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom. The next few years were not without problems. At one village my wife, Elsie, had a stroke, and I flew her to a hospital in Prince Rupert. While witnessing in North Vancouver, I was attacked by a Doberman pinscher and was blinded in my left eye. In a car accident, my son George pulled me from the car just before it exploded—both my legs and my collarbone were broken. Those injuries limited my house-to-house witnessing.
After Elsie died I married my present wife, Juana. We now do street witnessing every morning. In the afternoons I write letters and mail out 192 magazines every month. This activity, plus what door-to-door witnessing I am able to do, amounts to 60 to 100 hours a month.
From time to time I go into the reservations throughout southern, central and northern British Columbia, witnessing to the Indians and leaving hundreds of books and magazines that tell about God’s Kingdom as their only hope for righteousness and everlasting life in a paradise earth. Generally, Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot get into these reservations to preach. The churches assigned to the reservations refuse to let them in. But they cannot keep me out. Not only am I a native Indian but I am also the head chief. In 1982 my daughter and I covered 2,000 miles (3,200 km) witnessing in the reservations. In 1983, and again this year, I went in, taking along three members of my family.
In the past I made a name carving totem poles. Now I am endeavoring to make a name with Jehovah God, a good name that he will remember, one that will bring with it the reward of everlasting life in a new paradise earth wherein millions from “all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues” will unite in praising Jehovah God and Christ Jesus forever.—Revelation 7:9, 10; Ecclesiastes 7:1.
Making a name with this world is of little value. Making a good name with God is lifesaving.
[Blurb on page 25]
You gave us religion, and its clergymen burned our totem poles, saying we worshiped them. Not so!
[Blurb on page 26]
Making a name with this world is of little value. Making a good name with God is lifesaving
[Box on page 24]
Many forms of totemism exist around the world, ranging from mere tribal emblems to worship of the totem animals.—“Totemism,” in The New Encyclopædia Britannica Macropædia, 1976, volume 18, pages 529-33.
But concerning the totem poles of the Northwest Coast Indians The New Encyclopædia Britannica Micropædia, 1976, says: “The word totem is a misnomer, for neither the pole nor the animals depicted on it are worshipped.”—Volume X, page 62. See also page 27 of this story.
[Box on page 27]
Significance of the Totem Poles of British Columbia
“The content of totemism and its function differ greatly around the world . . . One of the outstanding characteristics of this area [coast of British Columbia] is the abundance of carved posts, called totem poles . . . representing the heraldic crest of the clan or lineage. The heraldic designs often embody the family history.”—Encyclopedia Americana, 1977, volume 26, page 872.
“A totem figure will be better understood if it is looked upon as the equivalent of a European coat of arms; it is respected but never worshipped, having, like an emblem of heraldry, meaning but no religious significance.”—Haida Totems in Wood and Argillite, 1967, by S. W. A. Gunn, page 5.
“Poles signified an individual’s move upward in rank, the building of a house, the death of a prominent person, or on rare occasions the commemoration of a highly significant event. Standing poles also served to explain the rank and status of those living in a village to strangers, indicating which houses belonged to the members of his or her own clan or phratry.”—Totem Poles of Prince Rupert, 1982, by Dawn Hassett and F. W. M. Drew, page 6.
“Specifically, we must remember that the symbols on totem poles were the aboriginal substitutes for the printed word. The totem pole was the signboard, the genealogical record, the memorial, and the classified advertisement of the region. It was the publicity campaign of the man of distinction and, through personal crests, identified him and his family, his clan, and occasionally his tribe, and told of important events in the factual and mythological past.”—The Totem Pole Indians, 1964, by Joseph H. Wherry, page 90.
Pertaining to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, the Encyclopædia Britannica Micropædia, 1976, volume 10, page 62, says: “The word totem is a misnomer, for neither the pole nor the animals depicted on it are worshipped. The significance of the real or mythological animal carved on a totem pole is its identification with the lineage of the head of the household. The animal is displayed as a type of family crest, much as an Englishman might have a lion on his crest or a rancher, a bull on his brand.”
Nevertheless, the early missionaries of Christendom moved in to save the “savages” and proceeded on this false assumption: “Many missionaries assumed the poles were graven images or idols. Part of the effort to convert Indians included the dismantling and burning of totem poles. Many poles were actually burned, many were also knocked down, cut up, or removed in other ways.”—Totem Poles of Prince Rupert, page 12.
[Picture on page 27]
Carved by William Jeffrey