Family members and friends of the late master carver Dale James of the Lummi Nation gathered in February at the new Alderwood Elementary School to unveil a story pole carved by James in 1974. Originally, the story pole was a collaborative educational project between James and Marietta Elementary School principal Sid Hammond.
One of the goals of the project was to build connection and trust between the Lummi people and Bellingham Public Schools. Although James did most of the carving during the year-long project, it was a student-centered endeavor and Marietta students learned how to use traditional adzes to help with the carving. They were also involved with choosing the animals, Bear and Raven.
Later, when Marietta closed in 1982 and Marietta students moved to the original Alderwood, the story pole was gifted to Alderwood. Now, the story pole occupies a prominent place in the new school building’s foyer.
“At the old school building, students would ask about the story pole and where it came from,” says Maddie Merritt, Alderwood student-teacher. “To watch the unveiling today and hear the stories from the family members was special. We’re regaining that history of the story pole for the students.”
James was known for his artistry and visions, which inspired his carvings and silk screens. The James family are descendants of Chief Seattle.
James’ brother Doug James spoke at the unveiling and shared that his brother Dale had visions that inspired the subjects of his story and totem poles.
The story pole depicts two figures: Raven and Bear. Raven was chosen because he always watches over others and is a teller of tales. He is also known as a great leader. Raven and Bear are brothers.
The story goes that Bear could be stubborn and didn’t always obey the rules. In one story passed down by Lummi elders, Bear’s wife was going to have a baby. During that time, Bear was forbidden from hunting, fishing or even gathering berries. While he was restricted from hunting and fishing, Raven provided for the people in his place.
But Bear was impatient to go fishing and hunting. He didn’t want to rely on Raven. So Bear went to the river’s headwaters, to the spawning beds, where he thought no one could see him. He decided to fish with his hands. But each time he touched a fish—the king, Chinook, coho, chum, pink, chum, and sockeye—it died.
Bear didn’t even realize the harm he was causing. He was just happy to be fishing. But Raven noticed the dead fish in the river, and he went looking for Bear. Raven found him just as Bear was trying to catch the last type of fish, the steelhead. Raven stopped him and told him what had happened to all the other fish. Bear didn’t touch the steelhead.
To this day, steelhead are the only fish that go out to sea and return to the river to spawn more than once. When other types of salmon return to the river to spawn, they also return to die.
Raven reminds the people to never forget what happened when Bear didn’t listen, and to always be respectful so the salmon return every year.
“The James family are our teachers. They teach us how to walk a good path, how to be a family,” said Alvin Cultee, a Lummi member who attended the unveiling. “They have done tremendous work for our people.”
Micah Smith, Alderwood’s principal, views the story pole as emblematic of Alderwood’s journey for inclusion. “That might be a journey of gender identity, orientation, race or something else,” Smith says. “The story pole signifies our inclusive values and building a community of diverse learners who can share their experiences with each other.”
“We acknowledge this as the beginning of recognition of our responsibility in centering the stories of the Indigenous lands where we live, learn, work and play to move our community towards change and reconciliation,” he says.
Alderwood is deeply grateful to the family of Dale James for attending the unveiling and gifting us their history of the story pole, so we can give proper thanks in remembrance of Dale.
Hyshque (thank you).
The James brothers have carved, transported and displayed poles for stories, healing and guardianship across the ancestral lands of the Lummi people to two Sept. 11 crash sites: the Twin Towers in New York City and Flight 93 site in Shanksville, Penn.
Short video documentary of story pole unveiling at Alderwood, with interviews, Feb. 9, 2022 ( by Children of the Setting Sun Productions) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PE7-eQtExk
Audio from the opening of the ceremony on Feb. 9, 2022:
Story of the relationship between Bear and Raven: https://www.lummi-nsn.gov/userfiles/190_Story%20of%20Conservation%20of%20the%20Salmon(1).pdf