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Alaska!Totem Poles: Fascinating Carvings of Western Canada

By Tim Young


We do not know whether the colossal monster which occupies the foreground is an idol or merely a frightful record of the destructive nature of death...In a casket whihc lay beneath its claws or hands was a bowl-shaped basket, a European hat, an otter skin and a piece of board. The height of the monster was no less than ten and a half feet high.

--Don Alexandro Malaspina, Italian explorer, describing a totem pole bear in the late 1700s

Carved manUntil recently, all I really knew about totem poles was that they were made by American Indians, and that somehow they "told a story". I had a vague idea that they were made in the northwestern U.S. But I had no clear image of the people who made them, or how they might differ from the "Indians" (now usually called "native Americans") seen in cowboy movies.

In fact, virtually all totem pole carving took place not in the U.S., but along the western coast of Canada. The people who made totem poles lived quite differently from the people who wore feather headdresses and lived in buffalo-skin "tepees".

It may also come as a surprise to many people that totem pole carving is not an ancient practice; the height of this art was not reached until the nineteenth century, after the indigenous people of the north Pacific coast met European traders. From the traders they obtained metal carving tools, which made carving much easier than previous tools, made from stone, wood, deer antlers, and beaver teeth.

There were several groupings of tribes, described by one writer as nations. These include the Tlingit, the Tsimshian, the Kwakiutl, the Bella Coola, the Coastal Salish, and the Haida. The Haida, of the Queen Charlotte Islands, led the others in wood carving and other skills. They became a prominent, wealthy tribe in the late 1700s, but, by the 1870s the Haida were on the way out. Thousands had died, having little immunity to diseases introduced to the area by European traders.

The Haida are noted for many reasons. As early as the 1850s, they were capable of carving dugout canoes which could make a 600-mile (960km) round trip. They built huge, sturdy wooden houses. They carved large, beautiful, intricate totem poles; they are thought to have been the first to make them.

The word "totem" refers to an object, animal, etc. which is regarded as a symbol of a certain group's identity, or perhaps an item of worship. Totems sometimes appear in "totem poles", but such poles do not serve as totems. Therefore, "totem pole" is not really an accurate name for these carved cedar logs.totem pole and native man

Various totem pole researchers have tried to count the number of types or functions of totem poles, and have come up with different numbers. Edward Malin identifies five:


Memorial Poles

The oldest type of pole, memorial poles were usually less than 30 feet high. They were displayed in memory of tribal leaders who had died. Nineteenth century photos show that memorial poles were uncarved except for a single figure on top, often a bird or human. These figures represented the identity of the leader, portraying either a symbol of his background (historical or mythical), or the leader himself. Although the early memorial poles were simpler than the other types of poles that developed later, they were probably painted.


Interior House Posts

These were support beams in houses which were carved with the crest or symbol of the family living in that house. Malin writes: "The posts served as reminders to those who occupied the dwelling of their ancestral origins and lineage achievements. They were the source of extraordinary pride and honor. Needless to say, the house posts also reminded guests and visitors of the backgrounds and achievements of the host family and as such were viewed not only with the highest regard but also with envy."

Usually interior poles showed a single figure: an animal, a bird, or a person. For example, a sea lion, holding up a horizontal house beam in its mouth, or a human with a house beam resting on his head. Since they were support beams, they seldom exceeded 20 feet in height, and tended to be wider than other types of totem poles. House posts were probably the most widespread type of wood sculpture on the Canadian Pacific Coast, stretching from Mt. St. Elias, Alaska, to what is now Bellingham, Washington.


Mortuary Poles

Malin notes that some people who have studied and written about totem poles have thought mortuary poles to be very similar to memorial poles, but he identifies some clear differences. They evolved from memorial and house poles, as the local economy flourished due to trade with fur companies, and those tribespeople who were profiting commissioned more ornate and complex poles in order to show off their wealth. Perhaps the most important difference between the two types is that, while memorial poles functioned simply as a memorial, a mortuary pole was used as the resting place of the dead person being memorialized, or a repository for his ashes. The body was placed in a cavity at the top of the pole and the hole covered by boards, making the top of the pole wider than the base. Sometimes the face of an animal or bird appeared on these boards.

The pole shown on page one is a Haida mortuary pole. An eagle is perched on top of the pole. The boards covering the cavity in the pole are decorated with the face of a hawk or thunderbird. Below the cavity are a whale and a beaver. A common feature of Haida poles is the extra faces put into empty spaces in the design, such as the top of the beaver's head. Notice how the small figures crouched body appears inside the beaver's ear. While this may seem unrealistic or illogical, it was a common stylistic feature of totem poles.


Heraldic or Free-Standing Poles

This larger type of pole developed a little later, becoming most developed in the mid-19th century. They are called "Free-standing" because they were placed relatively far away from houses. These are the so-called "story-telling poles" which tell about the mythology and history of the owner. Malin writes:

It is the heraldic pole that provides the basis for publicly displaying the ownership of important stories that deal with the respected ancestors. They are the poles that herald supernatural experiences associated with the bird and animal kingdoms, with mixed marriages between ancestors and animals, superhuman achievements of power, and the acquisition of symbols of wealth which provide the basis for the descendants' notoriety or status.

It is important to note that the stories in the poles cannot really be "read"; the figures on the poles were simply characters in stories which the owners of the poles were familiar with. Also, the arrangement of the characters is not necessarily important. As a child, I believed that the story could be "read" from the top of the pole to the bottom, which is the case, according to Holder. Also, it has nothing to do with rank, in spite of the common expression in English, "He is at the top (or bottom) of the totem pole."


House Frontal Poles

kid beside totem poleThe main difference between House Frontal Poles and Heraldic Poles is that House Frontal Poles were placed up against houses, or else were in fact part of the house. Sometimes the entryway to a house was a hole in the bottom of the pole. Malin shows one example where one entered the house through a hole in the belly of a carved grizzly bear. In another case, the bottom figure on the pole was a raven with a large beak, which opened to let people into the house behind it.

In addition to these types of poles, carvings similar to small totem poles were used a grave markers, after the Christian practice of burying the dead was introduced, and carvings of a single human figure welcomed guests to gatherings. Glenn Holder also points out that some poles were used to ridicule those who let debts go unpaid, by carving that person's image upside down on a pole. The subjects of these poles were often white explorers and colonists.

Animals are very prominent on totem poles. The tribes who produced these poles saw animals as their equals, not inferior to humans. Often they believed that their family lineage included animals. Naturally, these animals were native to the Canadian Pacific coast, including eagles, whales, grizzly bears, wolves, frogs, ravens, beavers, octopus, mosquitos, salmon, otters, and seals.

However, some of the animals were mythical. Grizzlies, wolves, and eagles were believed to have counterparts who lived in the sea. Some figures are combinations of humans and animals, such as a raven with human feet and hands. The sun, the moon, and various kinds of spirits are among the other figures appearing on totem poles. Even inanimate objects, such as an island, have been known to appear on poles.

Many of the stories associated with totem poles are now unknown; we can only guess at the meaning of the figures on the poles. However, Malin was able to learn some of the stories, which he briefly recounts. The pole on page two, a southern Tlingit pole from Tongass village, "represents Bear Mother, a Tlingit woman who was carried away by a grizzly bear who became her husband. The two smaller figures are her children, the result of this supernatural union."



Holder, Glenn Talking Totem Poles, 1973, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York.

Malin, Edward Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast, 1986, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon


Part two: totem poles in the societies of the Pacific Coast.>>>

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Copyright 2003 This page last updated November 4, 2002 . E-mail Tim