The cliché has it backward. To the Jamestown S’Klallam people, a Coast Salish tribe of the Pacific Northwest, the “low man” depicted on a totem pole is often the most revered, the foundational figure and sometimes the ancestor of everyone carved and painted above. “They are the one who starts the story,” the S’Klallam writer Leah Myers explains at the start of her finely crafted totem pole of a first book, “Thinning Blood: A Memoir of Family, Myth, and Identity.” Myers imagines her monument standing in a rainforest clearing in Washington State, a tribute to her maternal lineage and a corrective mythology.
Her great-grandmother forms the base of the pole, represented by the spirit of Bear. Next comes Myers’s grandmother (Salmon), then her mother (Hummingbird), and finally, at the top, Myers herself (Raven). “No matter how my family tree may grow,” Myers writes, “the tribal citizenship stops with me.” Blood quantum rules — which began as a colonizer practice designed to limit tribal citizenship but were later adopted by some Native peoples as a means of preserving cultural identity — require the tribe’s members to be at least one-eighth S’Klallam and to have at least one full-blooded S’Klallam ancestor. And so Myers, who just meets the one-eighth rule but says any children she might have would not, leaves no room above Raven for another generation.