Totem Poles

Some Info About a Spiritually Complex Object of Tradition

Stout, bold, and unmistakable in appearance, the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest stand today as a distinct artform of Native American culture that has been both appreciated and appropriated throughout the course of history. This week, I thought it would be interesting to take a deeper look at the history of this deeply cultural craft.

Despite widespread visual encounters with totem poles all across the U.S., the only North American tribes that shared the tradition of carving totem poles were located in the Pacific Northwest stretching from the border of southeast Alaska to Vancouver Island in Canada. It is not known how far back the tradition of totem pole carving reaches, as most of the ones preceding the 1700’s had rotted away. With no written record or earlier evidence of pole carving, it remains a mystery. Totem poles are typically made out of cedar, which is known for its workability as well as its durability. However, if left untreated, the wood can rot or become damaged as it weathers the elements, which means that most poles last around 60 years on average.


Info Courtesy of the CBC

It is thought that the initial design choices of the totem poles were carried by the Native tradition of storytelling. The animals chosen not only acted as the emblem of a family or clan, but also hold protective spiritual and ancestral significance to the individuals they represent.

During the 19th century, the various booms in trade would bring about the use of higher quality tools, thus increasing commissioning of totem poles. However, they took on an additional attribute as a symbol of wealth and status amongst leaders who sought to establish the importance of their family or clan. There are various accounts of carvers living in residence with patrons who sought to have a totem pole made. The patron would recount various experiences during the carving process which could often take up to two years. These stories would help the carver’s artistic process and inform the design choices of the patron, making carvers who travelled to various tribes extremely well informed and culturally educated on the specificity in traditions amongst various clans.


Tlingit Totem Pole Model, ca. 1820-40, Photo Courtesy of the Met Museum

Totem poles have also had a shaky and tragic history here in North America. During the 19th and early 20th century, Christian missionaries would strongly discourage the practice of Native American religion, putting a forced end to the carving of totem poles and destroying many existing ones; production would all but cease by 1901, however there is evidence of remote villages carrying on the tradition as late as 1905, most of which were left to decay as these sites became increasingly abandoned. A large portion of the destruction and disenfranchisement of Native American culture was backed by law until 1978, which would see the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Prior to this, many Native American rituals, traditions, and ceremonies were prohibited, allowing for the tragically “legal” destruction of property, including totem poles. Despite these sanctions, there would be a revival in the interest of totem pole carving in Alaska during the 1930’s after the passing of the Indian New Deal, which would attempt to reverse the plan for Native assimilation and seek to recognize the various cultures of Native American people.

Fake totem poles are also frequently viewed as misappropriated, as there are many unique traditions and specificities in design amongst the cultures of different clans. It is important to note the contention surrounding the usage of fake totem poles as tourist trinkets or being placed as decorations in various places that serve alcohol. North America has an elaborate and deeply problematic history of appropriation in this particular regard (and many more), however that would certainly require a much larger, more complex, qualified, and thoroughly researched post to speak about.

A fun fact to leave you with…the phrase “low man on the totem pole” is terribly misinformed. Because the viewer’s visual field would be closest to the bottom of the pole, more care was taken in carving the lower designs. On top of that, it is still common belief that the lowest figure is the strongest, and most supportive of the rest on the totem. The concept of hierarchy was overshadowed by harmony, as every being shared an equally important space on the pole.

Featured Image: Totem poles in Stanley Park, Vancouver, Canada, Feb. 4, 2016. Vancouver has embraced the culture and history of the region’s original inhabitants, collectively known as First Nations. (Kamil Bialous/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)Kamil Bialous/Copyright 2018 The New York Times

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