Pathological Entities Represented on Totem Poles of the Northwest Pacific Coast
Judith G. Hall
British Columbia Children's Hospital
Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Human beings have been in this part of the North America for at least 15,000 years. There were no
written records prior to European contact, however, clearly, these early inhabitants lived close to
nature and were very good observers.
The human brain has not changed significantly over the last twenty thousand years. Thus, these
peoples reasoned and interacted with each other in ways to which we can relate. They developed symbols
and myths, as other cultures have to describe what seemed unexplainable, such as death, disaster and
disease. The culture that was developed in this part of North America includes crests or totems, which
were spirits that reflect the supernatural. These totems were usually animals or supernatural beings.
They "belonged" to particular families and were the guardians of that family group.
Rare but recognizable congenital anomaly syndromes seem to be present in several of the totems.
These include the "old woman of the woods" Dzonaqua, who has the characteristics of Freeman-Sheldon
Syndrome. Nuhmal undoubtedly is a reflection of the Treacher-Collins Syndrome. The crests incorporate
physical features and behavioral characteristics of clinical conditions that we recognize today.
As part of the culture of the Northwest Coastal Native People, these crests were very powerful in
that they were used to gain power and insight and to provide protection to the owners. Clearly, this
traditional society recognized that the unusual individual had special creative and healing forces at
work within their being. Today we also believe that the unusual patient is very "powerful" in that it
can give insight into normal and abnormal developmental processes.