Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest

Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest

Totem poles are almost as famous as teepees as symbols of Native Americans. This article explains what they are and why they are carved.
Totem Pole in Vancouver
By Earl Hunsinger

Have you ever felt like, or been called, the low man on the totem pole? This is a common expression in the English language, yet it serves to illustrate the general ignorance concerning the totem poles made by Native American people. This ignorance goes back to the time when European clergymen first came into contact with the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. To them, the tall carved wooden poles erected in Indian villages looked like objects used for idol worship. In this, and in many other ways, the native people were misunderstood.

Totemism is found around the world and takes many forms. A totem is an entity, such as an animal, that watches over or assists a tribe, family, or group. The word 'totem' entered the English language towards the end of the 18th century, but the concept itself is much older. Although the English word comes from a Native American (Ojibwa) word, the belief has been found among native people in Europe, Africa, and Australia. In modern times, some people involved in the new age movement, or following other pseudo-religious trends, have adopted a slightly different meaning for totem, believing that they have a particular animal as a personal spirit guide.

In some cases, such totem animals are similar to the animals used by countries or sports teams. As the New Encyclopædia Britannica Macropædia puts it, "Many forms of totemism exist around the world, ranging from mere tribal emblems to worship of the totem animals." However, when it comes to the ones carved on the Pacific Northwest, the same encyclopedia says this, "The word totem is a misnomer, for neither the pole nor the animals depicted on it are worshiped."

Why are such poles carved? The same source went on to say, "The significance of the real or mythological animal carved on a totem pole is its identification with the lineage of the head of the household. The animal is displayed as a type of family crest, much as an Englishman might have a lion on his crest or a rancher, a bull on his brand." The book Haida Totems in Wood and Argillite made a similar statement, "A totem figure will be better understood if it is looked upon as the equivalent of a European coat of arms; it is respected but never worshipped, having, like an emblem of heraldry, meaning but no religious significance."

Totem poles are usually carved from very large trees, such as the western red cedar. The carved pole can stand as tall as 70 feet. Various styles have developed over the years among the different coastal tribes, with some being more intricate than others. Some use colors generously, specifically black, red, white, turquoise, green, and yellow. Others use very little color or none at all. Some square off the undecorated portion of the tree, others leave it rounded. In some cases, there are very distinct boundaries between the figures; other tribes are known for intertwining the figures together. Although they do not have a long tradition of carving totem poles, some tribes in the states of Washington and Oregon have even adopted the practice from their neighbors to the north.

Native people have been carving these poles for centuries. However, because they are made out of wood, there are very few early examples, with the exception of a few preserved in museums.

Totem poles are carved for a variety of reasons. They may recount a clan's lineage, privileges, songs, or stories, or proclaim the wealth and status of a family. Other poles are erected as reminders of familiar legends or notable events. While some celebrate cultural beliefs, others are intended primarily to be works of art.

So, who's the low man on the totem pole? While in many settings, the term low has a derogatory connotation, this is not normally the case with totem poles. There is no universal significance to the order that the figures are carved on the pole. If anything, the lower part of the pole might be considered a more prominent place, since this is the part that is seen close up after the pole is erected. In fact, in some cases, a master carver will assign apprentices the job of carving the higher figures, while he or she concentrates on the lower ten feet of the pole.

The carving and raising of totem poles flourished through most of the 19th century. Then, because of social pressure to "civilize" the natives, along with actual legislation banning many traditional customs, the art began to die. It experienced a resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s, and today a group of Native American artisans are once again erecting examples of this symbol of the Pacific Northwest.
Thunderbird Park Victoria
Totem Pole
Totem Pole