What is a Speaker's Staff?
Kwakwaka'wakw artist Greg Henderson with Chief's Speaker Staff
A Speaker's Staff, or Talking Stick, plays an important role in the culture of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. It is a ceremonial object, typically made of wood, that is traditionally used by high-ranking individuals, such as chiefs and shamans, during formal speeches, ceremonies, and potlatches. It is believed to be imbued with spiritual power, and is considered an important symbol of authority, prestige and status.
Kwakwaka'wakw carver Sam Henderson Sr.
Talking staffs allow for orderly and impartial public hearings. During ceremonies or speeches, the speaker would hold the staff in their hand, showing their authority to speak, and use it as a visual aid to emphasize their words, perhaps gesturing towards certain objects or people. The staff may be used exclusively by a leader as a symbol of their authority, or passed around a gathering, with the person holding it being able to speak.
Talking sticks are not only useful, but also have high ceremonial and spiritual significance. Resembling a small totem pole, a Speaker’s Staff is typically decorated with intricate carvings and designs, such as animals, crests, human figures, or abstract patterns, which often have symbolic meaning. The staff is often topped with a figure, such as a bird or animal, which is considered to have spiritual significance.
Chief's Talking Staff by Kwakwaka'wakw artist Greg Henderson
This Chief’s Talking Staff by Greg Henderson is an excellent example of a traditional Speaker’s Staff. On this staff, Greg incorporated the crests from his family, and personal to himself. Atop sits the Thunderbird, a crest from both his grandmother and grandfather, Sam Henderson Sr. and May Quocksistala. Below the Thunderbird is a whale, or G̱wa̱’ya̱m. Greg was blessed with the name G̱wa̱’ya̱m at th eage of 12 when his grandfather initiated him into the Hamat̓sa Society. Below the Whale is a Raven, a crest of many Northwest Coast peoples, with a personal connection to Greg, given that his daughter’s name is Raven. Finally, below the Raven is a Bear who’s strength supports the other crests above. The Bear is also a crest from his grandmother’s side.
Supporting the Talking Staff is a base with an Eagle carved into it, a crest from his grandfather Sam Henderson Sr. who was a renowned carver and cultural bearer, and who’s legacy Greg helps to carry forward.
Today, Speaker’s Staffs are still considered an important part of Pacific Northwest Coast culture and many Indigenous artists continue to make and use them in ceremonial and cultural revitalization practices. They are also exhibited in museums and private collections around the world.