Woman studies American Indian totem tradition

Retirees Max and Nona Meinen got an unpleasant surprise three years ago when they returned to their ranch southwest of Fort Worth, Texas, after a winter vacation.

A gas company laying a pipeline had inadvertently knocked over more than dozen of the cedar and oak trees on their 140-acre spread.

“They had the right to put a line through our property and were supposed to go underneath the trees, but they didn’t,” said Nona Meinen, 71, who formerly sold real estate. “We were pretty upset.”

But in a classic case of making lemonade from lemons, the couple made something good out of something bad.

Nona Meinen, who began reading about totem poles and experimenting with creating them six years ago, decided to transform one fallen tree.

“This turned out to be the biggest and best,” she said.

The Meinens attend Unity Church in Fort Worth, and the pole impressed some members during a visit to the ranch. They suggested that the couple consider giving it to the church for display in the Peace Garden near a prayer labyrinth.

The Meinens agreed, and the completed 11-foot-tall pole was loaded onto a trailer, tethered in place and hauled about 40 miles from the couple’s home near Grandview, Texas, to the church.

The pole was installed in a ceremony in September.

Nona Meinen did most of the work with her chain saw, grinder, hammer, mallet, gouger and knife — shaping, carving and smoothing the pole. The process took more than a year and a half.

“Max helped me when I was in a bind,” she said of her husband, Max Meinen, 75, a former band, Max Meinen, a former Continental Airlines pilot.

To save his wife time, Max used lumber to fashion the totem pole’s outstretched wings, which measure 7 feet across.

Animal likenesses carved into the pole include a thunderbird, a beaver, a raven and a bear holding a fish. Nona Meinen used red, blue, green and yellow paint to decorate the totem pole.

“I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig the hole myself,” Max Meinen said.

Carving monumental totem poles from cedar trees was an ancient practice by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, according to the New World Encyclopedia. The word totem refers to kinship, and the poles served as an emblem for a family or group.

European settlers and Christian missionaries assumed the totem poles were worshipped and banned them as paganism, but their true meaning was eventually understood. “My wife never sells the totem poles — she just gives them away,” Max Meinen said.

The Meinens stressed that church members do not worship the totem pole and that Unity is founded upon the teachings and example of Jesus.

But “we believe that the earth is sacred, and this is one way we can honor the earth,” said the Rev. Paul John Roach, senior pastor of Unity Church of Fort Worth.

“It’s an ecumenical thing, saying religions are connected. It’s a beacon.”