Walking to my graduate school class in Haskell Hall I'm struck by this sight.
Yes, a totem pole.
A plaque nearby tells that the pole was commissioned for a trade exposition in Chicago in the 1940s. It came from an Indian tribe located in the Coastal Northwest. The school came into possession after the pole sat in storage for many years.
In the late 1970s or early 80s the pole was installed on campus in the stairwell of the anthropology building.
I have complicated feelings about the pole and its location. My mother's tribe, the "Flathead," moved inland from the coast to hunt buffalo, but I don't know much about totem poles.
But I do know that it's located in a place nearly devoid of Native American culture. Indians are largely absent at the University of Chicago. Only thirty American Indian students attend the school. Unlike the first university I attended, there is little here for Indians. There is no Native American Studies department, no powwow, no cultural events. We lack a presence here. It's as if the entire school forgot Indians existed, except for this pole. And it's viewed as nothing more than a curiosity.
To me the pole feels lonely. Carved from the wood of a rainforest on the coast, by the hands of a skilled tribesman, it stands here near the stairwell devoid of context, devoid of meaning.
I identify with it.