Setting a Dream in Motion: Reflections on The 2021 “Red Road” National Story Pole Journey

Carving is the result of dream, a vision, or a spiritual message”
-Pauline Hillaire, Lummi historian and story-teller

In July 2021 the “Red Road to DC” project traveled across the country to present the Biden Administration with a twenty-four foot carved story pole created by members of House of Tears carvers of the Lummi Nation. Visiting sacred Native sites and environmentally endangered locales, from Bears Ears National Monument to the point where the Dakota Access Pipeline crosses the Missouri River, the pole was greeted and touched by hundreds of Native and non-Native supporters. Their combined energies, charging and recharging this object, helped, we hope, to remind the administration of its sacred obligations to honor treaty rights with tribal nations, to safeguard biodiversity and environmental sustainability here and abroad, and to uphold human rights.

(A brief video on the Red Road journey is visible at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVjYHq6tqQc&t=6s

Of the many extraordinary things about this pole, I am most fascinated by a dream that it carried within it.

For the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, carving has long been bound up with dreams and revelatory visions. Animals and spiritual beings carved in masks and story poles (sometimes known as “totem poles”) are often inspired by dream-visions given to the carver, a gift from the ancestors or other spiritual beings. Through the carved object, the dream is allowed to flourish and enter into the minds and souls of other persons, near and far, through masked performances, through towering story poles, and through gifts presented in potlatch or other ceremonial events. Perhaps a dream-gift most fully realizes its potential when it is shared and made accessible to many other people, binding them to one another, to nature’s beings, and to the mysterious forces of the invisible world. Dream images thus may inspire and generate further dream visions, which are given form through more acts of creation, imagination, and reciprocal exchange. Carving, in effect, helps set dreams in motion and in so doing helps transform people’s minds and hearts as it builds community between living people, the ancestors, and the spiritual energies coursing through the natural world.

Many visionary dreams were evoked in the Red Road pole, which journeyed from the Lummi lands in northwestern Washington state to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. At its is base we behold the waters that sustain life for all things, the very waters that are imperiled by extractive fossil fuel industries and associated petrochemical complexes, The figure of Peyote Woman reminds us of the visionary quests enabled by the sacred plant of peyote, which can help heal wounded psyches and communities. Peyote Woman is flanked by seven carved tears that bear testimony to the seven generations during which Native peoples have suffered under the depredations of settler colonialism. We glimpse some of the current nightmares that emerge from this long, painful history, including traces of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the predicament of detained children, many of Mesoamerican indigenous heritage, held in immigration cells. We also see important animal spirits that are at times glimpsed in dream vision, including a climbing bear and the great head of a diving eagle. At the pole’s apex is a spherical rendition of the full moon, within which is seen a crouching Native American man in front of a sacred fire, perhaps embarking on a vision quest that will yield further dream images.

One dream associated with the pole is particularly rich and moving. In his artist’s statement, master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James’s describes a dream he experienced late in the production process of this remarkable object:

I was with my maternal-side cousin, we were traveling in his truck, and making a short stop. I was sitting in the passenger seat, looking out the window and could see it was windy. As dreams are, I could see the waves of the wind. At that moment, a single Eagle Feather came traveling, upright, in the wind, like it was dancing. My cousin said, take it. It danced right to my window and I was getting ready to take it from the wind, as my cousin said, “Open your window and take it!” I replied, “I am trying to get the window down now.” I woke up. I call this dream, “Wind Dancing Eagle Feather.” At this time, all the totem pole figures were completely added to the Sacred Sites Totem Pole. But, there was one small, mid-section site on the pole (right side), that was sanded but not carved (not even gouged like the same spot on the opposite side) in any fashion. This “feather with the visible wind waves” was carved in that spot. To me, this will always be the “Wind Dancing Eagle Feather” Totem Pole.”

The dream in the truck would seem to be anticipatory, a kind of dress rehearsal for the great cross-continental journey the pole was about to embark upon. The Lummi are people of the sea, deeply attuned to the waves, winds, and currents of the Salish Sea, in which reside the orcas, their “relatives under the waters.” Thus, it seems appropriate that the dreamer apprehends within the wind the pulsating energies of waves. From this wind, as he prepares to set forth with his great gift of the pole, the dreamer himself receives a gift, a single dancing feather. Not coincidentally, this is the feather of an eagle, which bears great significance in Native American spirituality. The Eagle, of course, also appears on the Great Seal of the United States, and is thus an appropriate emissary in a mission that moves from Native America to the U.S. Government.

It seems all the more fitting that a space was left empty for the carved feather mid- way along the pole, on the right side. Like all significant gifts, the pole contains within itself the relationship between giver and receiver, in this instance between Native peoples and the Federal Government. What better mediator, halfway between the pole’s base and apex, than the feather of a bird that is sacred to both donor and recipient, carved into the right side, a side associated for Lummi peoples with life and enduring vitality?

The wind and wave energies that power the light feather, gifted in the dream, perhaps helped launch the large pole on its journey from one coast to another, as the carved object prepared to take wing across the continent, traversing a multitude of sacred places and encountering many Native and non-Native supporters, who would bless the pole by touching it. High-flying eagles, gifted with extraordinary vision, perceive no borders on the land below them; perhaps the single, solitary feather, imbued with the forces of wind and eagle, will help convey to its intended recipient the gift of seeing a borderless world, a vast web of life in all its infinite interconnections.

I can’t help but speculate about the fact that the truck was being driven by the carver’s maternal cousin. Traditionally, men of the Lummi and other indigenous peoples of the northwest coast at times marry women who come from their mother’s side of the family.. Might the feather dancing down from the wind towards the maternal cousin’s truck thus be a kind of “spirit-wife” for the dreamer, the very essence of gifting itself, coming from the invisible world into the visible world? What better thing, as an ephemeral bond between the spirit world and the mortal world, and between Mother Earth to her children? What better gift to enliven the story pole in the very final moments of its creation, as it becomes a shining beacon, destined to blaze the path, the Red Road, from sea to shining sea?

Opening the Window

A final thought. We are often strangely paralyzed in dreams, knowing we ought to do something but incapable of fulfilling that imperative. So I suspect we all recognize the dreamer’s frustrating predicament, being told by his cousin to open the truck window to receive the gift, but not quite being able to roll the window down. Like the truck, the dream too is stopped in place, and he simply can’t grasp the offered feather, which is tantalizingly close.

It isn’t easy to receive a gift, especially one of spiritual and artistic inspiration. Perhaps that is the point: the dreamer can’t at this moment seize the feather, because it isn’t yet his to take. He can only come to grasp it later, after he has awakened and carved it on the pole, completing the sacred object. Until that moment, there is something standing between him and the alluring image of the feather dancing in the wind waves. The window can only be opened, and the feather can only be properly held, once the dreamer awakes, and undertakes the inspired act of artistic creation, finally bringing out a shape whose energies may have been incipient in the western cedar log all along.

There’s another thing about vehicle windows, in our strange era. For nearly two years, air, which ought to be experienced as the unequivocal gift of breath and life, has become a source of persistent anxiety for all of us. How many times since March 2020, have we wondered about whether or not to roll down a car window when people are standing or walking nearby: do we risk breathing in the virus, or panicking them that they might catch something from us? We have all been prisoners in one way or another, condemned for an indefinite sentence to view the world through windows, longing to embrace fully the great world beyond, as we mourn the many thousands gone. (As the Red Road to DC was being planned in spring 2021, we all anticipated a grand opening up of the world; after successive waves and variants, this initial optimism has of course been tempered.)

The Red Road was, to be sure, an emergency mission, a journey to help save Mother Earth at what might be the moment of her greatest peril. It is serious business, and as the seven tears carved in the pole remind us, there is a long history of dispossession and injustice being witnessed here. Yet the Red Road was also an occasion of extraordinary exhilaration, opening up all of us to re-connection with other people, other places, the glories of nature’s beings and landscape, and the rich spiritual traditions of Native America. The pole carried with it, as well, the promise of a new administration and the delight and pride in knowing that Debra Haalland had been confirmed as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. Like all great gifts, the pole traversing the Red Road blazed a path to a new future. Many dreams may finally be brought to life. After a long period of confinement, of only knowing the world through TV screens, computer screens, smart phone windows, windows, and windshields, the activists sought to travel out and through the world, to grasp and breath in physical substance, to experience once more the authentic and the unexpected. We finally get to roll down the windows, and race down the highway, waves of wind blowing over us, our faces streaked with tears—tears that just might, be in this long-dreamt of moment, our shared tears of joy.

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