We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, August 6, 2012

Totem Poles & Missionaries: A Tale with no Ending

A few postings back, I reported on the sad destruction of a local Lewis County historical monument by a right-wing sect group.  The monument was to an early 19th century church located in the long abandoned community of Stow Square, NY, which was just up the road from the present town of Lowville.  The monument was in the shape of an obelisk, which this sect found offensive because thousands of years ago and thousands of miles from Lewis County the ancient Egyptians used obelisks as sacred pillars.

This kind of narrow, zealous, and unloving thinking has a long, "rich" history.  Another and much more important manifestation was the destruction of Pacific coast totem poles by 19th century missionaries who assumed without any study that the totem poles are elements of a false religion.  They amount to devil worship.  A website dedicated to totem poles, totempole.net, addresses this belief, writing (here),
Totem poles were never objects of worship; the association with "idol worship" was an idea from local Christian missionaries. The same assumption was made by certain early European explorers, but later explorers such as Jean-François de La Pérouse noted that: totem poles were never treated reverently; they seemed only occasionally to generate allusions or illustrate stories; and were usually left to rot in place when people abandoned a village.
Still, the missionaries tried to stamp out not only the use of totem poles but also the cultures that produced them.  And, evidently, they nearly succeeding.  Fortunately, however, according to an Al Jazeera report (see the video clip below), the art of making totem poles is experiencing a rebirth.

This revival of an ancient art is important from an artistic perspective and from a cultural one.  I know from personal experience with tribal folks in Southeast Asia that indigenous cultures give deep meaning to those who share in a local culture.  They find their identity in their language, cuisine, art, folkways, and beliefs. At the same time, exposure to the their culture enriches the lives of others.   All of this is one manifestation of God's creation of our world and us.  We are created to live in culture,  and the more of it, the greater diversity of it, the better.  Amen.