What are totem poles?

While only specialists are trusted to carve these mighty sculptures, it takes a village to raise them

(Image source: Pixabay)

Totem poles are one of the most iconic examples of Native American art. They’re found in the Yukon and British Columbia regions of Canada, as well as Alaska and Washington in the US. Created by the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, each community has its own methods of designing totem poles. The Haida, for instance, often carve creatures with bold eyes, whereas the Kwakwaka’wakw poles typically have narrow eyes. The Coast Salish carve images of people, while the Tsimshian prefer supernatural beings on their poles. 

All of them were made by skilled craftsmen. They would make totem poles out of the trunks of giant red cedars. It could take months, during which time the wealthy families that commissioned the artwork would be responsible for feeding the carver and any assistants they had. The whole community was invited to take part in a totem pole’s raising. It might take hundreds of men to carry it to the site where it would be erected. A deep trench was dug to keep the pole upright, while it was carefully put in place in stages using strong ropes and stakes. And though they weren’t religious artefacts, a pole-raising would often be an excuse for a celebration. The carver would dance around the pole to the sound of drums. There might even be a feast and gift-giving.

In the northwest Pacific’s mild, wet climate, few poles made before the 20th century still exist. But archaeological evidence suggests they were being carved hundreds of years before the first European explorers arrived. Totem poles were effectively banned for over 60 years by the Indian Act in Canada in 1876. They were also forbidden under the US Code of Indian Offenses in 1884. But today totem poles are once again celebrated, with some of the tallest ever carved in the 1960s and 1970s.

What do the figures represent?

(Image source: Future PLC)

1. The thunderbird

A legendary figure in many Northwest Coast cultures, this weather-controlling creature denoted power, mysticism and leadership on a totem pole.

2. The snake

While European art often depicts serpents as evil, the skin-shedding reptile represents change, medicine and fertility in some Native American cultures.

3. The wolf

While revered as a cunning hunter, wolves live in packs so are also often used to represent loyalty and strong family ties.

4. The beaver

Capable of building mighty dams, beavers symbolise both creativity and determination, while appearing in many indigenous stories.

5. The bear

Often featured in family crests, the grizzly bear stands for strength and authority, but also motherhood, teaching and humility.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 131, written by Jack Parsons


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