I've heard about Totem Poles before but didn't really know why these were made, how they came about, and who made them. It was only in Ketchikan (Alaska) when Nena and I visited the Totem Heritage Center, the Saxman Native Village, and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center that I learned about and also saw Totem Poles. The finest collection of 19th century Totem Poles which were retrieved from abandoned Native village sites are on display at these three sites.

In Vancouver (British Columbia) we also saw Totem Poles at Stanley Park, and at the Museum of Anthropology of the University of British Columbia. We also saw some Totem Poles when we visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge. It was here that we saw Totem Poles with brightly colored figures of the animal gods which make up the complex American Indian religion, such as the Crow with the large beak, the Wolf, the Fox, the Beaver, the Eagle, the Whale and the legendary Thunderbird with its wings spread. I also noticed that the three traditional colors used in totem poles are red, blue-green, and black. Paint was made from natural materials and mixed with salmon eggs.

The meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures which produce them. Totem poles may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. Some poles are erected to celebrate cultural beliefs, but others are intended mostly as artistic presentations. Certain types of totem poles are part of mortuary structures incorporating grave boxes with carved supporting poles, or recessed backs in which grave boxes were placed.

The specific functions of totem poles varied. They were carved to honor the dead, proclaim wealth and status, and support the oral tradition. Some of the reasons for carving poles have changed. For instance, when the practice of cremation ceased, mortuary poles were no longer carved. These sculptures which were carved from great trees such as cedar illustrate stories, to commemorate historic persons, to represent shamanic powers, and to provide objects of public ridicule. Some of the figures on the poles constitute symbolic reminders of quarrels, murders, debts, and other unpleasant occurrences about which the Indians prefer to remain silent.

The beginning of totem pole construction started in North America. Being made of wood, they decay easily in the rainforest environment of the Northwest Coast, so few examples of poles carved before 1800 exist. And, while 18th century accounts of European explorers along the coast indicate that poles certainly existed prior to 1800, they were smaller and few in number.

At first I thought Totem Poles were used as objects of worship. The association with "idol worship" was after all just an idea from local Christian missionaries, who would have seen their association with Shamanism as being an occult practise. The same assumption was made by very early European explorers, but later explorers noted that totem poles were never treated reverently; they seemed only occasionally to generate allusions or illustrate stories and were usually left to rot in place when people abandoned a village.

From one of the centers we visited, I learned that Totem Poles are primarily classified and used as follows:

  1. SHAME OR REDICULE POLES - were erected to publicly descredit one who broke their word, behaved in a dishonorable fashion or left an unpaid debt. If amends were made, the poles were chopped down and destroyed.
  2. MORTUARY POLES - were commissioned when a person of high caste died in order to house the cremated body. These poles carry a story about the deceased. The ashes were placed in a box and stored in a hole carved in the back of the pole.
  3. MEMORIAL POLES - honored important deceased clan members. A man selected to succeed as head of a clan house could not assume leadership until he had commissioned and erected a memorial pole commemorating the deeds and lineage of his predecessors.
  4. HOUSE POSTS OR PILLARS - were carved with emblems of family histories. House posts carved in the round, supported the main beams of the clan house and were a structural part of the house. The indoor house posts, which support the roof and carry clan emblems while house frontal poles are those which stand by the entrance of the house. Some were carved down a flat panel and rested against the supporting pillars of the house. These were common amongst the Tlingits and could be more easily transported if necessary.
  5. HERALDIC OR CREST POLES - were placed in front of a clan house displaying a crest showing the matrilineal clan designation. Earlier versions amongst the Haida included the "portal" pole, whose opening at the base provided a ceremonial entrance to the clan house. Crests on these poles indicated the clan's gegraphic origin, genealogy or events in family history.
  6. POTLATCH POLES - were carved exclusively by the Haida to commemorate festivals. The Haidas and Tlingits are Indian Tribes of Alaska. The Haidas inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia and Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. The Tlingit are an indigenous people of northwestern America. The tribe is a federally recognized Indian tribe located in Yakutat, Alaska.

I also found out that the following figures are usually portrayed in totem poles:

  1. THUNDERBIRD - most powerful of all the spirits; it the personification of "chief."
  2. WOLF - revered as a good hunter and associated with the special spiritual necessary to become a good hunter.
  3. KILLER WHALE - legend says that whales could capture a canoe of people and drag it to an underwater village. Here people would be transformed into whales.
  4. RAVEN - A cultural hero of the Coast Indian peoples who had magical powers and could change himself into anything.
  5. GRIZZLY BEAR - here it represents the clan of the people who made the totem pole. Attributed with many human-like qualities and much power.

I became so fascinated with the colorful Totem Poles that I even bought two miniature poles which I now have on display in my bookshelf at home. I have also taken a number of photographs of the Totem Poles we saw in Ketchikan and Vancouver and you can view these by clicking on the link shown below:

Totem Poles

It is my hope that I have shared some important facts about Totem Poles and that the accompanying photographs will give you a good idea as to how these poles really look like. However, I must say that there's nothing better than to really see these Totem Poles for yourself.