History of Totem Poles

Published on March 8, 2012 by Amy

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Stanley Park Totem Poles
Stanley Park Totem Poles

Totem poles are monumental sculptures carved from large trees, mostly Western Red Cedar, by cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. The word totem is derived from the Ojibwe word odoodem, “his kinship group”.

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Since they are made of cedar, which decays eventually in the rainforest environment of the Northwest Coast, few examples of poles carved before 1900 exist. Noteworthy examples include those at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver, BC, dating as far back as 1880. And, while 18th-century accounts of European explorers along the coast indicate that poles existed prior to 1800, they were smaller and few in number.

The freestanding poles seen by the first European explorers were likely preceded by a long history of monumental carving, particularly of interior house posts. The scholar 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 Queen Charlotte Islands originated carving of the poles, and that the practice spread outward to the Tsimshian and Tlingit, and then down the coast to the tribes of British Columbia and northern Washington. This is supported by the photographic history of the Northwest Coast and the deeper sophistication of Haida poles. The regional stylistic differences among poles can be attributed to application of existing regional artistic styles to a new medium. Early 20th-century theories, such as those of the anthropologist Marius Barbeau, who considered the poles a post-contact phenomenon enabled by the introduction of metal tools, were treated with skepticism at the time and have been discredited in light of the above evidence. The disruptions following American and European trade and settlement first led to a flowering of totem pole carving and then to a decline in the Alaska Native cultures and their crafts. The widespread importation of iron and steel tools from Britain, the United States and China led to much more rapid and accurate production of carved wooden goods, including poles. Historians have not determined if iron tools were introduced by traders, or whether Alaska Natives produced iron tools from drift iron recovered from shipwrecks; the presence of trading vessels and exploration ships simplified the acquisition of iron tools, whose use greatly enhanced totem pole construction.

The Maritime Fur Trade gave rise to a tremendous accumulation of wealth among the coastal peoples, and much of this wealth was spent and distributed in lavish potlatches frequently associated with the construction and erection of totem poles. Poles were commissioned by many wealthy leaders to represent their social status and the importance of their families and clans. By the 19th century, certain Christian missionaries reviled the totem pole as an object of heathen worship; they urged converts to cease production and destroy existing poles.

Due to United States and Canadian policies and practices of acculturation and assimilation, Alaska Natives sharply reduced their production of totem poles at the end of the 19th century . In the mid-20th century, a combination of cultural, linguistic, and artistic revival, along with intense scholarly scrutiny and the continuing fascination and support of an educated and empathetic public, led to a renewal and extension of this moribund artistic tradition. Freshly carved totem poles are being erected up and down the coast. Related artistic production is pouring forth in many new and traditional media, ranging from tourist trinkets to masterful works in wood, stone, blown and etched glass, and many other traditional and non-traditional media.

Today a number of successful native artists carve totem poles on commission, usually taking the opportunity to educate apprentices in the demanding art of traditional carving and its concomitant joinery. Such modern poles are almost always executed in traditional styles, although some artists have felt free to include modern subject matter or use nontraditional styles in their execution. The commission for a modern pole ranges in the tens of thousands of dollars; the time spent carving after initial designs are completed usually lasts about a year, so the commission essentially functions as the artist’s primary means of income during the period. Totem poles take about 6–12 months to complete.

Meaning and purpose

The meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures that make them. Totem poles may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. Some poles celebrate cultural beliefs, but others are mostly artistic presentations. Certain types of totem poles are part of mortuary structures, and incorporate grave boxes with carved supporting poles, or recessed backs for grave boxes. Poles illustrate stories that commemorate historic persons, represent shamanic powers, or 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 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.” (Reed 2003).

House front poles were meant to show the success of the families.
Totem poles were never objects of worship. Very early European explorers thought they were worshipped, but later explorers such as Jean-François de La Pérouse 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. The association with “idol worship” was an idea from local Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century, who considered their association with Shamanism as an occult practice.

The vertical order of images is widely believed to be a significant representation of importance. This idea is so pervasive that it has entered into common parlance with the phrase “low man on the totem pole.” This phrase is indicative of the most common belief of ordering importance, that the higher figures on the pole are more important or prestigious. A counterargument frequently heard is that figures are arranged in a “reverse hierarchy” style, with the most important representations being on the bottom, and the least important being on top. There have never been any restrictions on vertical order; many poles have significant figures on the top, others on the bottom, and some in the middle. Other poles have no vertical arrangement at all, consisting of a lone figure atop an undecorated column.

Shame poles

Poles used for public ridicule are usually called “shame poles”, and were created to shame individuals or groups for unpaid debts. They are often placed in prominent locations. Shame poles are rarely discussed today, and their meanings have been forgotten in many places. They formed an important subset of poles carved throughout the 19th century.
One famous shame pole is the Seward Pole in Saxman, Alaska. It was apparently created to shame the former U.S. Secretary of State for not repaying a potlatch to the Tlingit people. The intent of the shame pole was indicated by the figure’s nose and ears being painted red, to indicate his stinginess. It is a common misconception that the Lincoln pole, also located in Saxman, is a shame pole, but it was erected to commemorate the U.S Revenue Cutter Lincoln in its role in helping two rival Tlingit clans establish peace.

Another example of the shame pole is the Three Frogs Pole in Wrangell, Alaska. This pole was erected by Chief Shakes to shame the Kiks.ádi clan into repaying a debt incurred by three of their slaves, who impregnated some young women in Shakes’s clan. When the Kiks.ádi leaders refused to pay support for the illegitimate children, Shakes had the pole commissioned to represent the three slaves as frogs, the frog being the primary crest of the Kiks.ádi clan. The debt was never repaid, and the pole still stands next to the Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell. This pole’s unique crossbar shape has become popularly associated with the town of Wrangell. Not understanding the meaning of the pole, European Americans used its crossbar shape as part of the title design of the Wrangell Sentinel newspaper, which continues to use the design.

In 1942 the government commissioned a pole to commemorate Alexander Baranof, the Russian governor and Russian American Company manager, as a works project. Designed by George Benson, it stands in Totem Square, in downtown Sitka. The pole was carved by CCC workers in Wrangell in 1942, who competed with those of Sitka. They depicted Baranov as naked. Due to safety concerns, after a Sitka Tribe of Alaska-sponsored removal ceremony, the pole was lowered on October 20, 2010 with funds from the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services. The Sitka Sentinel reported that while standing, it was “said to be the most photographed totem in Alaska”.

A shame pole was erected in Cordova, on March 24, 2007. It includes the inverted and distorted face of Exxon ex-CEO Lee Raymond, representing the unpaid debt that courts determined Exxon owes for having caused the oil spill in Valdez

Construction and maintenance

Erection of a totem pole is almost never done using modern methods, even for poles installed in modern settings on the outside of public and private buildings. Instead, the traditional ceremony and process of erection is still followed scrupulously by most artists, in that a great wooden scaffold is built, and hundreds of strong men haul the pole upright into its footing, while others steady the pole from side ropes and brace it with cross beams. Once the pole is completed, a potlatch is typically held where the carver is formally paid and other traditional activities are conducted. The carver will usually, once the pole is freestanding, perform a celebratory and propitiatory dance next to the pole while wielding the tools used to carve it. Also, the base of the pole is burnt before erection to provide a sort of rot resistance..

Totem poles are typically not well maintained after their erection. Traditionally once the wood rots so badly that it begins to lean and pose a threat to passersby, the pole is either destroyed or pushed over and removed. Older poles typically fall over during the winter storms that batter the coast. A totem pole rarely lasts over 100 years. A collapsed pole may be replaced by a new one carved more or less the same as the original, with the same subject matter, but this requires a new payment and potlatch and is thus not always done. The beliefs behind the lack of maintenance vary among individuals, but generally it is believed that the deterioration of the pole is representative of natural processes of decay and death that occur with all living things, and attempts to prevent this are seen as somehow denying or ignoring the nature of the world.

This has not, however, prevented many people from occasionally renewing the paint on poles or performing further restorations, mostly because the expense of a new pole is beyond feasibility for the owner. Also, owners of poles who are not familiar with cultural traditions may see upkeep as a necessary investment for property, and ignore the philosophical implications.


Each culture typically has complex rules and customs regarding designs represented on poles. The designs are generally considered the property of a particular clan or family group, and this ownership may not be transferred to the owner of a pole. As such, pictures, paintings, and other copies of the designs are often seen as an infringement of possessory rights of a certain family or cultural group. Many Native artists, Native organizations and Native governments note that the ownership of the artistic designs represented on a pole should be respected as private property to the same extent that the pole is property. They ask that public display and sale of pictures and other representations of totem pole designs should be cleared with both the owners of the pole and the cultural group or tribal government associated with the designs on the pole.

Totem poles in general are not the exclusive cultural property of a single culture, so the designs are not easily protected. Theappropriation by art and tourist trinket worlds of Northwest Coast American culture has resulted in production of cheap imitations of totem poles, executed with little or no knowledge of the complex stylistic conventions demanded by Northwest Coast art. These include imitation styles made by other First Nations and Native American peoples in the various parts of Canada and the American Southwest. This proliferation of “totem junk” has diluted the public interest and respect for the artistic skill and deep cultural knowledge required to produce a pole.
In the early 1990s, the Haisla First Nation of the Pacific Northwest began a lengthy struggle to repatriate a sacred totem from Sweden’s Museum of Ethnography. Their successful efforts were documented in a NFB documentary by Gil Cardinal, Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole

Source: wikipedia

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