The Totem Pole

The first will be last, and the last will be first.


totem poleAlong the shores of British Columbia you can find totem poles among Indian villages, beside their great lodges, or along the shore. The animals of a totem pole are special to the people of that village.

One village was very poor, and no animals had come to be their totem pole. The villagers were sad, and their eyes had no joy because they had no totems. Many of the animals knew about it, and finally a bear decided that if no one else were going to be these people’s totem, she would. On her way to the village, she found a beaver and convinced the beaver to be a totem with her. An eagle sitting in a tree overheard their discussion and swooped down to join them as well. As the bear and the beaver rustled through the woods, the eagle soared overhead and let them know when they were getting close to the village.

That evening the bear and beaver sat down near the edge of the village. The eagle perched onto a branch above them. “I overheard the villagers,” he said.

“What did they say?” asked the bear.

“They’re hoping for a totem pole with four animals. We’re only three. We don’t want to disappoint them. What should we do?”

“I’ll ask around,” the beaver said. And she slipped into the underbrush. The bear and the eagle watched the people and wondered if they could make them happy. Soon the beaver returned, dragging a chipmunk by the neck.

“So what’s this about a totem pole?” the chipmunk demanded, as he shook out the teeth marks from his neck.

The bear explained, “These people need a totem pole. And we think we should be the animals they need for it. But there are only three of us, and they were hoping for four.”

The chipmunk thought for a moment. “A totem pole, eh? I suppose with the three of you, the one on top would be pretty high up in the air.”

“I suppose so,” the bear said, as the beaver nodded her head. The eagle shook his head and said, “That’s not so high.”

The chipmunk looked at each of them. “Who’s going to be on top then?”

The others glanced back and forth. “We hadn’t thought about that. We only want to help the villagers and be a totem pole for them.”

The chipmunk laughed and whispered, apparently to himself, “These fools don’t know anything about getting ahead.” He cleared his throat and stated, “I think I should be on top.”

The other three looked at one another and back at him. “Why is that?” the beaver asked.

The chipmunk huffed. “Because I’m the smartest.”

“Are you smarter than I am?” the eagle said. “When I fly high, I can read the wind. I know the movements of the heavens.”

The chipmunk looked down and scratched the dirt. “Well, I’m the most skillful.”

“Are you more skillful than I am?” the bear said. “I can catch fish with my bare paws and pick fine berries besides.”

The chipmunk looked aside and bit his lip. “Well, I’m the most industrious.”

“Are you more industrious than I am?” the beaver said. “I work all day long to build lodges and dams. I’m a four-pawed construction company.”

The chipmunk wrinkled his nose at them. “If you want me in the totem pole, you have to let me be on the top.”

The other three huddled together. They only wanted to make the villagers happy. So what did it matter who was on top? And the chipmunk might not be able to support the weight of the others. They turned back to him. “Go ahead, chipmunk. You can be on top.”

That night they all snuck into town.

The bear said, “You all shouldn’t have to carry the weight. I’m the heaviest, so I’ll be on the bottom.”

The beaver said to the eagle, “I’ll go next to carry the second most weight.”

“No,” protested the eagle. “I will.”

“No, let me carry you,” insisted the beaver.

The chipmunk laughed and whispered, apparently to himself, “They’re making it easy for me to be on top!”

The chipmunk climbed up each of them on his way to the top, chuckling as he went. He sat there surveying the darkened village and thought of the recognition he would get in the morning.

The sun rose and brought the excited villagers out of their lodges with shouts of joy. The whole village gathered around the totem pole.

People smiled and shouted and clapped their hands. Drums pounded and bells jangled. They danced for hours around the totem pole. Finally they quieted and stood at attention as the village chief approached the totem pole. He shouted, “I will now pronounce special honors to each animal of our totem pole.

The chipmunk beamed and fidgeted as the chief looked up at him.

First, the chipmunk was recognized with a word of thanks and the pounding of a drum for being part of their totem. Then the eagle was recognized with the pounding of several drums and shouts of thanks. Then the beaver was recognized with the pounding of every drum in the village and with loud shouts and the people bowing down. Then the bear was recognized with every drum, and shouting voice, bowing down, and jubilant dancing. He even got kisses from the maidens.

The animals were quite moved by all this affection, especially the bear, who was red with embarrassment.

The chipmunk was red with anger. “I’m on top! But I only got a pittance of recognition and really no honor at all.” He scowled and shook his head. I’m just going to leave these foolish people who can’t recognize a clever chipmunk when they see one.” He moved his foot to climb down but froze when he looked down from his dizzying height. He was stuck on top, and the other animals did not budge.

An old gentleman and a boy approached the totem pole.

The man bent down to the boy and said, “In our tradition, the animal on the bottom always gets the most honor, because it’s the one who carries all the others.”

The boy nodded his understanding and smiled up at the old man.

The chipmunk only cried.


For Thought and Discussion

  • Matthew 19:30 tells how the first will be last and the last, first. Describe in your own words what that means. How are people like the animals, and how is the kingdom of God like the totem pole?


  • In Mark 10:42–45 Jesus clarifies God’s view on greatness and servanthood. What does Christian servanthood mean? Have you ever been like the chipmunk? Have you ever been like the bear?


  • According to the Bible, whatever temporary recognition you might receive, the end result will be like that of the totem pole. How has this affected, or how will it affect, the way you think and behave?

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