Totem poles are monumental carvings, a type of Northwest Coast art, consisting of poles, posts or pillars, carved with symbols or figures.

They are usually made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, by First Nations and indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast including northern Northwest Coast Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian communities in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth communities in southern British Columbia, and the Coast Salish communities in Washington and British Columbia.

The word totem derives from the Algonquian word odoodem meaning “(his) kinship group“. The carvings may symbolize or commemorate ancestors, cultural beliefs that recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events.

The poles may also serve as functional architectural features, welcome signs for village visitors, mortuary vessels for the remains of deceased ancestors, or as a means to publicly ridicule someone.

They may embody a historical narrative of significance to the people carving and installing the pole. Given the complexity and symbolic meanings of totem pole carvings, their placement and importance lie in the observer’s knowledge and connection to the meanings of the figures and the culture in which they are embedded.


Totem poles serve as important illustrations of family lineage and the cultural heritage of the Native peoples in the islands and coastal areas of North America’s Pacific Northwest, especially British Columbia, Canada, and coastal areas of Washington and southeastern Alaska in the United States.

Families of traditional carvers come from the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl), Nuxalk (Bella Coola), and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), among others.

The poles are typically carved from the highly rot-resistant trunks of Thuja plicata trees (popularly known as giant cedar or western red cedar), which eventually decay in the moist, rainy climate of the coastal Pacific Northwest.

Because of the region’s climate and the nature of the materials used to make the poles, few examples carved before 1900 remain.

Noteworthy examples, some dating as far back as 1880, include those at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver, the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, and the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Totem poles are the largest, but not the only, objects that coastal Pacific Northwest natives use to depict spiritual reverence, family legends, sacred beings, and culturally important animals, people, or historical events.

The freestanding poles seen by the region’s first European explorers were likely preceded by a long history of decorative carving. Stylistic features of these poles were borrowed from earlier, smaller prototypes, or from the interior support posts of house beams.

Although 18th-century accounts of European explorers traveling along the coast indicate that decorated interior and exterior house posts existed prior to 1800, the posts were smaller and fewer in number than in subsequent decades.

Prior to the 19th century, the lack of efficient carving tools, along with sufficient wealth and leisure time to devote to the craft, delayed the development of elaborately carved, freestanding poles.

Before iron and steel arrived in the area, Natives used tools made of stone, shells, or beaver teeth for carving. The process was slow and laborious; axes were unknown. By the late eighteenth century, the use of metal cutting tools enabled more complex carvings and increased the production of totem poles.

The tall monumental poles appearing in front of native homes in coastal villages probably did not appear until after the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Eddie Malin has proposed that totem poles progressed from house posts, funerary containers, and memorial markers into symbols of clan and family wealth and prestige.

He argues that the Haida people of the islands of Haida Gwaii originated carving of the poles and that the practice spread outward to the Tsimshian and Tlingit, and then down the coast to the indigenous people of British Columbia and northern Washington.

Malin’s theory is supported by the photographic documentation of the Pacific Northwest coast’s cultural history and the more sophisticated designs of the Haida poles.

Accounts from the 1700s describe and illustrate carved poles and timber homes along the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

By the early nineteenth century, widespread importation of iron and steel tools from Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere led to easier and more rapid production of carved wooden goods, including poles.

In the 19th century, American and European trade and settlement initially led to the growth of totem-pole carving, but the United States and Canadian policies and practices of acculturation and assimilation caused a decline in the development of Alaska Native and First Nations cultures and their crafts, and sharply reduced totem-pole production by the end of the century.

Between 1830 and 1880, the maritime fur trade, mining, and fisheries gave rise to an accumulation of wealth among the coastal peoples.

Much of it was spent and distributed in lavish potlatch celebrations, frequently associated with the construction and erection of totem poles.

The monumental poles commissioned by wealthy family leaders to represent their social status and the importance of their families and clans.

In the 1880s and 1890s, tourists, collectors, scientists and naturalist interested in native culture collected and photographed totem poles and other artifacts, many of which were put on display at expositions such as the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, the practice of Native religion was outlawed, and traditional indigenous cultural practices were also strongly discouraged by Christian missionaries. This included the carving of totem poles.

Missionaries urged converts to cease production and destroy existing poles. Nearly all totem-pole-making had ceased by 1901.

Carving of monumental and mortuary poles continued in some, more remote Native villages as late as 1905; however, as native sites were abandoned, the poles and timber homes were left to decay and vandalism.

Beginning in the late 1930s, a combination of cultural, linguistic, and artistic revivals, along with scholarly interest and the continuing fascination and support of an educated and empathetic public, led to a renewal and extension of this artistic tradition.

In 1938 the United States Forest Service began a program to reconstruct and preserve the old poles, salvaging about 200, roughly one-third of those known to be standing at the end of the 19th century.

With renewed interest in Native arts and traditions in the 1960s and 1970s, freshly carved totem poles were erected up and down the coast, while related artistic production was introduced in many new and traditional media, ranging from tourist trinkets to masterful works in wood, stone, blown and etched glass, and other traditional and non-traditional media.

Meaning and purpose

Totem poles can symbolize the characters and events in mythology, or convey the experiences of recent ancestors and living people.

Some of these characters may appear as stylistic representations of objects in nature, while others are more realistically carved. Pole carvings may include animals, fish, plants, insects, and humans, or they may represent supernatural beings such as the Thunderbird.

Some symbolize beings that can transform themselves into another form, appearing as combinations of animals or part-animal/part-human forms. Consistent use of a specific character over time, with some slight variations in carving style, helped develop similarities among these shared symbols that allowed people to recognize one from another.

For example, the raven is symbolized by a long, straight beak, while the eagle’s beak is curved, and a beaver is depicted with two large front teeth, a piece of wood held in his front paws, and a paddle-shaped tail.

The meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures that make them. Some poles celebrate cultural beliefs that may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events, while others are mostly artistic.

Animals and other characters carved on the pole are typically used as symbols to represent characters or events in a story; however, some may reference the moiety of the pole’s owner, or simply fill up empty space on the pole.

The carved figures interlock one above the other to create the overall design, which may rise to a height of 60 ft (18 m) or more. Smaller carvings may be positioned in vacant spaces, or they may be tucked inside the ears or hang out of the mouths of the pole’s larger figures.

Some of the figures on the poles constitute symbolic reminders of quarrels, murders, debts, and other unpleasant occurrences about which the Native Americans prefer to remain silent…

The most widely known tales, like those of the exploits of Raven and of Kats who married the bear woman, are familiar to almost every native of the area.

Carvings which symbolize these tales are sufficiently conventionalized to be readily recognizable even by persons whose lineage did not recount them as their own legendary history.

Those from cultures that do not carve totem poles often assume that the linear representation of the figures places the most importance on the highest figure, an idea that became pervasive in the dominant culture after it entered into mainstream parlance by the 1930s with the phrase “low man on the totem pole” (and as the title of a bestselling 1941 humor book by H. Allen Smith).

However, Native sources either reject the linear component altogether, or reverse the hierarchy, with the most important representations on the bottom, bearing the weight of all the other figures, or at eye level with the viewer to heighten their significance.

Many poles have no vertical arrangement at all, consisting of a lone figure atop an undecorated column.

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