Totem Poles from the Tlingit and Haida tribes.
- What Do Totem Poles Mean?
- Fake Totem Poles Versus Real Ones
- How to Read a Totem Pole
- Where to Visit Totem Poles
- See Record Breaking Poles: BC and Alaska
- Low Man on the Totem Pole
- Myths and Falsehoods About Totem Poles
- Have a Pole built; commission your own Totem Pole
- Totem Poles All Over the World
- The "FAR FLUNG TOTEM" Project
- Common Totem Pole Figures
What Do Totem Poles Mean?
Carved from mature cedar trees by the Native people of the Northwest
Pacific coast (British Columbia, Canada and southern Alaska, USA), full size Totem Poles
are outgrowths of the region's aboriginal art forms. Originally an important part of the
Potlatch ceremony, a feast with deep meaning to coastal First Nations, Totem Poles were
once carved and raised to represent a family-clan, its kinship system, its dignity, its
accomplishments, it prestige, its adventures, its stories, its rights and prerogatives. A
Totem Pole served, in essence, as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder
of its ancestry. In times past, a totem was raised for several reasons:
- in honour of a deceased elder who meant a great deal to the band
- to show the (great) number of names and rights a person had acquired over their lifetime
- to record an encounter with a supernatural being
- to symbolise the generosity of a person who sponsored a Potlatch ceremony.
HAIDA Sgangwaii'llnagaay, Haida Gwaii, Memorial Poles. These two memorial
Poles stood in front of a house in Sgangwaii'llnagaay (Ninstints village). It is likely
that the house and Poles belonged to Kanskinai, a chief of the Sand Town People lineage of
the Raven division of the Haida.
Today, Totem Poles are carved for both Natives and non-Natives. They have come to
represent Northwest Pacific Coast Native tradition and pride.
To grasp the symbolism hidden within a Totem Pole try this mental exercise: envisage
the Great Seal of the United States or the Coat of Arms (the Armorial Bearing) of Canada.
(Look them up on the internet if you need to.) These national emblems are roughly
equivalent to the meaning bound up in a Totem Pole. The Great Seal with its Eagle, shield
and arrows features symbols, assigned a certain meaning, and representing qualities the
United States chooses to identify with. In the same way, the Coat of Arms of Canada
features a lion and unicorn, maple leaves, fleur de lis and a motto, that sums up its
ideal national identity. As for Totem Poles, they once performed much the same function
for Native bands. A big Native family grouping, not just a mother, father, sister,
brother, but a whole Clan of relatives, who were related by blood, by experience, by war
exploits, and by adoption identified very strongly with the crests and figures carved on
their Totem Pole.
In general, Totem Poles (like Coats of Arms and Great Seals) mean: "This is who we
are; these carvings symbolically show what we stand for." Additionally, Natives felt
they had special rights to claim a link to the super-human beings they depicted on their
poles. These special links included: being "descended from ...." or having
recently "encountered ..." or having received "a gift from ...".
Some poles embody one-of-a-kind stories or unusual symbols. These stories or symbols
are known in their entirety only to the pole's owner and the carver of theTotem Pole. If
the pole's owner or carvers gave an account to a relative, granted interviews to
academics, or left a written record, these unusual meanings are known. If not, hidden or
special meanings are lost over time.
The secret to uncovering the meaning behind a totem figure, and the symbolism behind
emblematic crests such as Bear, Wolf, Half-man, Sea Serpent, Glass Nose, Hawk, Red
Snapper, or Wild Woman is to see the figures, sort them out, learn to identify them
through photographs, and discover the myriad's of stories that have been revealed and
Fake Totem Poles Versus
Totem Poles made by Northwest Pacific Coast First Nation's carvers for
their own people portray the owner's deeply meaningful symbols and family crests. However,
Northwest Pacific Coast First Nation's carvers also construct Totem Poles for non-Native
people -- technically not part of the old totem tradition. This practise has evolved,
however, to become an important part of the modern tradition and is legitimate. Since
authentic full size Totem Poles today, cost in the region of $25 000 to $60 000 each,
outsiders usually commission them to commemorate a great event or a great "coming of
age," to symbolise a pact between nations, or to illustrate some sort of bond between
Native people and the company or government entity who commissions the pole.
Haida longhouse with pole in front.
To be authentic, a Totem Pole needs to be "sanctioned." That means that it
must pass certain tests. First, it must be made by a trained Northwest Pacific Coast
native person, or in rare cases, a non-Native apprentice who is approved by a Northwest
Pacific Coast Band from coastal British Columbia or Alaska. Secondly, it must be raised
(and blessed) by Northwest Coast natives or elders who are part of the Totem Pole
tradition. Chain saw artists, non-Native imitators, or (non-apprenticed) Natives from
bands far away from the Northwest Pacific Coast do claim to produce "totem
poles". But under the rules of the Northwest Pacific Coast native totemic tradition,
they are fakes.
Small argillite or wooden Totem Poles, made for the tourist trade, are
"real," under the following conditions:
- they are miniature prototypes of poles once sanctioned, but for some reason, never built
- they are authentic copies of poles that once stood
- they are miniature copies of poles still standing
- they are assembled under the rules of protocol still practised today.
A great number of the miniatureTotem Poles found in souvenir stores fall into the last
category. However, they are not "authentic" if an outsider just "made them
Once a person learns about Totem Poles, it is easy to spot fakes, because they often
break the rules of Totem Pole assembly-protocol. Fake Totem Poles are rather like a bad
translation of your language if the translator is not familiar with the nuances of words.
The translation, like the fake, looks right, but it sounds strange to someone who knows
better. (A foreign translation I once saw on English Etiquette contained a handy chapter
entitled "For to Visit a Sick.") Once a person has been exposed to good examples
of real Totem Poles and has viewed photographs of the best ones, fake Totem Poles become
obvious. Totem Poles are emblems, not talisman. The difference is significant.
How To Read a Totem Pole?
Groups of faces and figures piled one on top of the next, woven into
patterns with repeating shapes combine along the height of a Totem Pole to produce a
mystical portrayal of something wondrous. Though it is technically an oversimplification
to say that Bear means "dignified self-sacrifice" or Wolf means "powerful
healing" or Sea Serpent (Siskiutl) means "bravery in war" these
interpretations contain a kernel of meaning within them. However, it is in knowing the
entire First People's story behind each figure that Totem Poles really come alive.
Northwest Pacific Coast Native stories involve the easy transformation of animals into
humans or vice versa, or the transformation of supernatural beings into humans.They
involve whole villages of Salmon or Whale people who live happily in underwater cities;
powerful beings who live deep within whirlpools in the ocean, smelt copper, and
periodically change into Frogs; wild creatures who steal children, try to eat them, are
caught, burned and transformed into Mosquitoes; giant Thunderbirds who swoop down from the
sky and snatch up giant Whales to eat for dinner; Wolves who, at night, change into bony,
yet attractive Ghost People, and Wolves who grow tired of hunting in packs on the land and
change into hunting packs of Killer Whales.
The excitement of these stories comes because these events really happened in a time
not so long ago, (oh yes, they did!) and still continue to happen for those whose eyes are
opened by stories.Once the First Nation's story has been told, and the figure has been
identified, why, Totem Poles come to life.
HAIDA Skidegate, Haida Gwaii House Post.
This house post comes from the Haida village of Skidegate where it stood at the
back of a dwelling belonging to Chief Nestaqana of the Big House People lineage of the
Eagle division of the Haida.The name of the house, which refers to its great size, can be
translated as "House In Which People Must Shout to be Heard." There are several
possible interpretations of the images on this post. In one, the top figure is Raven with
a broken beak and the other figures illustrate the story of Nanasimgit. Nanasimgit's wife,
who can be identified by the labret in her lower lip, was abducted by a Killer Whale.
Nanasimgit journeyed to the Killer Whale's undersea house and rescued her. The main image
on the pole represents the Killer Whale.
Where to Visit Totem
Numerous Totem Poles continue to stand tall, in various locations,
sometimes singly and sometimes in clusters all along the Northwest Pacific Coast from
Seattle, Washington, along the coastal regions of British Columbia, Canada up to southern
Alaska. They are located in city squares, outdoors along highways, tucked away in Native
reserves (reservations,) clustered in heritage sites, or preserved in various museums.
(All are specifically identified in the book "Totem Poles.") Many are located in
cities: Seattle WA, Vancouver BC, Victoria BC, Prince Rupert BC, and Ketchican AK, but
visitors must know on which street to look. Others are found by adventuring into the
outback and arranging a camera safari to find them. A map and written directions in the
book pinpoints these locations.
See Record-Breaking Poles
in British Columbia and Alaska.
Record setting Totem Poles attract everyone's attention: the world's
tallest presently points skyward in Victoria BC, and the world's oldest, original (indoor)
collection is being cared for in Ketichikan AK. Other record breaking poles include the
worlds thickest Totem Pole, in Duncan, BC and the world's second tallest pole in Alert
Bay, BC. The world's most viewed Totem Poles, about 8 million visits a year, (Vancouver
Parks Department figures) are in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Eco-tourists, the new wave of speciality travellers now exploring the byways of North
America, love to discover breath-taking scenery and to appreciate the First People who
inhabit an area. They and all others with a spirit of adventure find this guidebook an
invaluable way to plan camera safaris to all sorts of Totem Poles: accessible, remote and
semi-remote. The magic of these carved tree trunks is undiminished by time, particularly
at the now declared UN World Heritage site, a haunting Haida village of decaying totems,
the oldest outdoor collection, abandoned about 1835 and now accessible by water on Anthony
Island, Ninstints, Queen Charlotte Islands, BC.
Low Man on the Totem Pole.
Such a common expression, and so incorrect .... one wonders how it
persists. At first glance it might appear that the lowest figure on a Totem Pole, has the
weight of an entire menagerie on top, and obviously lacks status. Go surfing the Internet
to any number of academic sites and see the number of academia's who wistfully refer to
themselves as "low man on the Totem Pole." Interestingly enough, the low end of
the Totem Pole is very important. Totem Poles are carved, not by one carver, but by a
chief carver and a number of apprentices. The chief carver is well aware that the viewers
of a finished upright pole, range in size from 3 feet (children) to about 7 feet
(basketball players.) So, to be certain the Totem Pole looks professional and
well-executed, the chief carver personally carves the bottom ten feet of the pole and
allows the inexperienced apprentices to carve the higher regions. The most intricate and
best carved figures are usually placed on the bottom end with the story thinning out
towards the top. Many poles (but certainly not all of them!) are topped off with
Thunderbird, sort of a generic caper figure, something like a Christmas star, who often
has far less meaning than all the carefully thought out symbolic creatures carved into the
lower regions. If anything, the lower figures on a Totem Pole are slightly more important.
Secret Society from the Kwakiutl. In the the back of the interior are beautiful
indoor Totem Poles and in the front players with huge masks.
Myths and Falsehoods
About Totem Poles.
There are a number of myths about Totem Poles and the rich traditions that
surround them.The following statements are untrue (true statements in brackets);
- Totem Poles were once worshipped (Never, ever. They are emblems, not icons.)
- Totem Poles are/were used as talisman (Never, ever.)
- Northwest Pacific Coast shamans used Totem Poles to ward off evil spirits (Never, ever.)
- A slave was once buried at the base of a Totem Pole (Totem Poles have been dug up to
verify this, it is not true!)
- Ancient, weird totemic traditions were once in place (Totem Pole practises are quite
logical and have evolved mostly over the last 200 years since metal tools made Totem Pole
making easier. Claims of bizarre, magical "totemism" practises are fabricated
- Totem Pole building today is a vanishing legacy (Today, authentic native Totem Pole
carving thribes in British Columbia and southern Alaska; however, it is true that for
about 40 years between 1910 and 1950 only a few true Totem Poles were built and raised.)
- Decaying Totem Poles are thousands of years old (In reality, most Totem Poles, though
made of decay resistant cedar, fall over in about 100 years; the oldest ones in Ninstints,
BC date from about 1835. Within the west coast First Nations' totem tradition, duplicates
of decaying Totem Poles are made and raised by the descendants of the family who own
- The Totem Poles in the popular viewing area in Stanley Park, Vancouver BC, are fake
(They are real, very valuable, and if they have been replaced, are authorised replacements
of the original poles.)
- Painted poles are fakes (Some poles are painted, some are not. The choice is the
carvers' to make.)
- Unpainted poles are fakes (Ditto, to the above statement.)
- Totem Poles are solemn and always very serious (Actually, there are several jokes woven
into Totem Poles such as figures "accidentally" carved upside-down, or a little
figures winking, grinning and peeking out of Bear's ear or out of Whale's blowhole. Tricks
have occasionally been played on the pole's sponsor. If the person paying for the pole
annoys the carvers too much, he might be portrayed on the pole, - a little too
embarrassingly naked. A little touch of carved-in amusement, here and there, is a valid
part of the tradition.)
- Certain Totem Poles, with a rectangular box on the top, once held the remains of a dead
chief (This is a commonly repeated mantra and in fact, the type of pole with a flat board
on top is called a Mortuary Pole. But there has never been a documented case where a human
corpse was actually placed in one.)
- No other aboriginal people make real Totem Poles (New Zealand's Maori people construct a
form of Totem Pole to commemorate their ancestors and the Ainu people from Hakkaido in
northern Japan build Totem Pole-like clusters of tree trunks as "playgrounds"
for their gods. "Is there any relation between these people and the Natives of the
Northwest Pacific Coast?" is the more interesting, unanswered question.) Where
To Get or See an Authentic Northwest Totem Pole.
Have a Pole built;
commission your own Totem Pole.
To commission one: Those who have about $25 000 to $60 000 to spare will,
of course, appreciate the information on the great Totem Pole carvers today, where they
may be found and how to have your own pole carved. Others will have to be content with
foot-high miniatures for sale in art galleries and craft stores. There are hundreds of
Arts and Crafts stores and Art Galleries specialising in Native Arts made by Pacific West
Coast Native artists. Many of these outlets sell Native-made replicas of totems.
Totem Poles all Over the
People from many parts parts of the world might be surprised to realise
that there was a very significant "harvesting" of Totem Poles, sometimes
described as a "feeding frenzy," that went on from about the years 1880 to about
1935. Anthropologists, ethnologists and various collectors from Germany, France, Great
Britain, Australia, the United States, eastern Canada and many parts of the world combed
the Northwest Pacific Coast for all manner of Native articles and artefacts.Totem Poles
were chopped down (mostly with permission) by the hundreds, and shipped, via the
"new" railroads, all over the world. Collectors reportedly received $11 an inch,
back in 1910, a princely sum.
So if you live in Australia, Germany, Sweden, or Great Britain, there may well be a
museum near you chock full of old, authentic, invaluable Totem Poles, just begging to tell
their stories. There are also large collections throughout America and at the Smithsonian
as well as artefact collections in Seattle WA, Portland OR, and elsewhere. In eastern
Canada, the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa-Hull has amassed an outstanding collection of
Totem Poles. Phone around and find out. You might be astounded.
Let us know if you found authentic examples in a museum near you. At one point in the
20th century, around 1945, there were said to be more Totem Poles ageing in museums around
the world, than there were (remaining) in British Columbia and Alaska combined!
In Western Canada, Vancouver BC, there is a good collection at the the Museum of
Anthropology and on Vancouver Island the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria BC also
has a comprehensive collection.
The Far-Flung Totem Pole Project
Because there was such a widespread harvesting of Totem Poles from the Northwest
Pacific Coast and Alaska between about 1880 and 1930, even today, there are poor records
on exactly where they came to rest. It is said that hundreds went to Germany and many of
these disappeared about 1945. It is said that many were burned in a serious fire in
Stockholm. It is known that excellent Totem Poles were commissioned and given to the
reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and to the nation of France as gifts. It is known that
many were shipped to the Smithsonian Institute (Museum of the American Indian has many),
and universities throughout the United States and as far away as Australia.
Where are the Poles Today?
If you know about Alaskan or Northwest Pacific Coast Totem Poles in a museum or
commissioned by a company and at a location near you, but far away from Alaska and British
Columbia, please let us know. We want to find out where they are. Recently, a journalist
from Israel visited a Kwakiutl band on Vancouver Island to find out about a 3 foot Totem
Pole, recently donated to the British Museum in London, that had been a mascot on a
submarine called "Totem" in WWII. It was authentic; he did find the carver, now
almost 100 years old.
A Sampling of Common
Totem Pole Figures
|Grand lord of the Sky Realm; frightens humans who disturb him; needs homage; busy with
his own wars carried out beyond human perception; eats Whales; likes to come to human's
|Thunderbird's dull-witted brother; a show off; competitive; strong; will occasionally
transport huge longhouse beams for humans
|Aristocratic lord of the Sky Realm; part of Thunderbird's entourage or live with other
lordly Eagles; occasionally transforms into a human dancer
|Transforms regularly into Hawk Woman or Hawk Man; hates Mosquitoes; quite regal;
stand-offish but will assist humans
|Powerful, ever-transforming trickster; ever hungry; ever curious; deviant; compulsive;
crooked, corrupt and deceptive but somehow likeable; ever politically incorrect
|Ruler of His own Underwater City; lives with noble supernatural beings there; hates
Thunderbirds; some turn into Wolves
|Ever-interfering, social climbing wife of Komowkwa, the Underwater King of copper
smelting; grants wealth to her personal favourites; particular friend of Frog; causes
volcanic eruptions disguised as Volcano Woman
Siskiutl, the Two-headed Sea Serpent
|Can turn enemy warriors into stone with one glance; has been known to swiftly pull
huge war canoes to the site of a battle; protects his crestholders from injury during war;
has removable crystal eyes; hates Thunderbirds (his enemy)
|Cannibal woman who owns certain valuable treasures that humans like to steal; lives on
the Earth Realm; smells awful; collects children but they often get away; dull-witted;
cannot be killed
|Can easily transform into a human; must not be insulted/cursed; lumbering, caring
figure with a yen to marry good-looking human princesses; has twin children who grow to
adulthood in record time; able to make fires with wet sticks (Bear wood)
|Vengeful creature; occasionally murders humans; if provoked digs underground tunnels
that cause earthquakes and landslides; constructs fine arrows
|Powerful; generally avoids humans; able to heal human sickness but this healing is
costly; fraternises with Ghosts at night; when in the mood turns into Whale; powerful ones
are pure white
|Much misunderstood and underestimated; associated with great wealth; survives volcanic
eruptions; must not be insulted; friend of Copper Woman
|Arose from the transformed remains of chopped-up cannibal beings; it continues to love