The evolution of the human race has been such that through our growing needs, we have invented and discovered devices that ease our efforts while also shaping our society’s cultural and social fabric. With space, time and demand, stories are weaved into history. Our beliefs and norms are constantly changing, and one of the most impressionable ways to capture the essence of a period is through symbolism. One such example of depicting and describing culture in symbolism is the Totem Pole.

An overview of Totem Pole - Sheet1
Cedar Totem Pole_©Shakzu

Brief History

In North America, Totem Poles are ingrained into many indigenous people of Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. These poles serve purposes that are beyond their beauty. Their meanings are deep and varied. Totem Poles are sculptures carved from giant trees, generally the Western Red Cedar. The word totem is derived from the Algonquian word odoodem, meaning “his kinship group”, which denotes a family or a clan. Thus, Totem Poles represent indigenous families and clans! The word refers to a guardian or ancestral being, usually supernatural, revered by the majority but not always necessarily worshipped.

Totem Poles began to gain prominence in the early nineteenth century and by the 1880s were so common that they were often listened to as a must-see item for tourists. 

Native Alaskan communities relied heavily on animals for sustenance and inspiration, especially regarding the foundation of their social structure. The spiritual value of an animal is often embodied and eternalized through means of a Totem Pole. The tradition of stories being passed through families and communities spans many generations, leading to many of the various clans’ unique identities. Each animal holds a unique story and a spiritual meaning. These meanings have seeped into the identities of several Alaskan Native clans in the Southeast region. The Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian clans have a particularly rich Totem Pole history.

An overview of Totem Pole - Sheet2
Sybolism_©mspinrod

Availability of Cedar

Cedar grows wonderfully in damp climates, because the conditions enhance the wood with weather resistance. White cedar has a limited growth range, making it harder to find while on the other hand, Western red cedar is found in abundance along the west coast of the United States, which makes it the most easily available cedar for Americans. Naturally, this type of cedar is a convenient and efficient choice for the making of the Totem poles.

Cedarwood doesn’t shrink, swell or warp as much as a comparable lumber, even under severe fluctuations in humidity or temperature. Being able to withstand so many conditions, this type of wood is often favored for multipurpose use. Cedarwood can be left raw without any finish or paint, however, its durability is enhanced by regular coats of a sealer. This can retain its color and stability. Since cedarwood is also pitch and resin-free, it’s easy to finish if you wish to do so. It can hold a wide range of colors.

An overview of Totem Pole - Sheet3
totemfromcedar_©ebay

What do the carvings represent?

The carving on Totem Poles highlights the painted surfaces of the symbolic animals and the spirits which are depicted on them. Each pole generally has one or several animal images carved into it. The animals include all that are familiar to Native Americans of the Northwest Coast. For instance, beavers include cross-hatched tails and eagles are shown with downwardly curved beaks. The significance of the real or mythological animal carved on a Totem Pole is that it can be identified with the lineage of the head of the clan. 

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Carving_©WhiteWolfPack

Some Totem Poles represent stories or important events. Each figure on the Totem represents a chapter of a larger narrative. These Totems are used as a device to record the history and legendary stories of the tribes.

Types of Totem Poles

Figures that are carved on a Totem Pole are not gods to be worshipped. Instead, they are representative of the traits and characteristics each clan embodies. There are many types of Totem Poles, such as Genealogy, Memorial and Mortuary Poles. 

Genealogy Poles are erected in front of a family’s home and they are symbolic of the owner’s clan or social status. Memorial Poles are carved as a tribute to a deceased clan member. Mortuary Poles are also for a similar purpose with an additional small compartment to store the ashes of the deceased.

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Memorial Pole_©RolfHicker

Another peculiar typology of a Totem Pole is the Shame Pole. Shame Poles are created for the sole purpose of embarrassing or ridiculing a person who has committed a shameful act. 

Design of the Pole

Totem Poles were painted with limited artificial paints. Artists preferred to use only natural pigments, with black being the most common colour. It was created by grinding soot, graphite or charcoal. Red was produced from red ochre, a clay-like material, and blue-green colours were derived from Copper Sulfide.

Common figures found on Totem Poles include the Raven, the Eagle and the Killer whale which are symbols of the Creator, peace and friendship and strength respectively. Other figures include the Thunderbird, the Wolf, the Bear, the Beaver and the Frog.

The carving of Totem Poles reached its pinnacle in the early and mid-19th century. This was the time when efficient metal tools were introduced and the wealth gained from the trade of fur made it feasible for many people to afford the display of the poles. However, few examples of this period remain, as the moisture in the coastal atmosphere causes the cedar poles to decay and fall in roughly 60 to 70 years.

The size of Totem Poles has a wide range. House-front poles are sometimes more than one meter (3.3 feet) in width at the base, and can reach heights of over 20 meters (65.6 feet). For a sense of scale, that’s taller than a street light which generally ranges between 7.5 and 9 metres. Completed Totem Poles are erected as part of the traditional Potlatch ceremony. It is a festive affair as people from the community gather around to mark the erection of the pole by singing and dancing at the base of the pole. The ceremony is symbolic of the transition of the pole’s belongingness from the carvers of the pole to the local people. 

An overview of Totem Pole - Sheet6
Raising Ceremony_©Paula Worthington

The world’s tallest Totem Pole is believed to be the Kwakwaka’wakw, located in Alert Bay, Canada. It stands at an estimated 173 feet tall and is made from two sections. The lower section is 163 feet tall and it is capped by a ten-foot top section, both of which are spliced together and held upright by guy ropes. Some clans claim that the pole must be made from just one section of wood.

An overview of Totem Pole - Sheet7
Scale of Totem Poles_©cbc
Totem Pole_©Wikimedia

Totem Poles have been around for several decades and some are still created today. Native carvers in the Northwest region continue to design and carve Totems as a symbol of their cultural pride and clan kinship even to this day.

References:

  1. Britannica. (2018). https://www.britannica.com/art/totem-pole
  2. Vitabrevis. (2017). https://vitabrevis.americanancestors.org/2017/01/language-totem-poles/
  3. Wonderopolis. (2020). https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-a-totem-pole
  4. Akwildlife. (2021). https://www.akwildlife.org/news/the-history-and-significance-of-totem-poles
Author

Nandini Ganesh is an architect from Chennai with a keen interest in landscape design. She enjoys writing as a medium of expression and draws inspiration from natural elements. She understands the world through artistic exploration and captures moments through photography and journaling.

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