Totem Poles

Totem poles are monumental sculptures carved from great trees, typically Western Redcedar, by a number of Native American cultures along the Pacific northwest coast of North America.


The beginnings of totem pole construction are not known. Being made of wood they decay easily in the rainforest environment of the Northwest Coast, so no examples of poles carved before 1800 exist. However eighteenth century accounts of European explorers along the coast indicate that poles certainly existed at that time, although small and few in number. In all likelihood, the freestanding poles seen by the first European explorers were preceded by a long history of monumental carving, particularly interior houseposts.

Edward Malin has proposed a theory of totem pole development which describes totem poles as progressing from houseposts, funerary containers, and memorial markers into symbols of clan and family wealth and prestige. He argues that the epicenter of pole construction was centered around the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands, from whence it spread outward to the Tsimshian and Tlingit and then down the coast to the tribes of British Columbia and northern Washington. The regional stylistic differences between poles would then be due not to a change in style over time, but instead to application of existing regional artistic styles to a new medium.

The disruptions following Euro-American trade and settlement first led to a florescence and then to a decline in the cultures and totem pole carving. The widespread importation of Euro-American iron and steel tools led to much more rapid and accurate production of carved wooden goods, including poles. It is not certain whether iron tools were actually introduced by Europeans, or whether iron tools were already produced aboriginally from drift iron recovered from Oriental shipwrecks; nevertheless Europeans simplified the acquisition of iron tools whose use greatly enhanced totem pole construction. The 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. As the fur trade declined the incidence of poverty on the coast increased. Christian missionaries reviled the totem pole as an object of heathen worship - which it was not - and urged converts to cease production and destroy existing poles.

Totem pole construction underwent a dramatic decline at the end of the nineteenth century due to American and Canadian urges towards Euro-American enculturation and assimilation. Fortunately, in the mid-twentieth 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 nontraditional 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.


Poles of all types share a common graphic style with carved and painted containers, housefronts, canoes, masks, intricately-woven blankets, ceremonial dress, weapons, armor, and many other tools and implements. Two distinct systems of art were developed for two-dimensional and three-dimensional figures, but both were maintained within a complex design system. This artistic system was developed by Northwest Coast Native Peoples (see Native Americans) over many thousands of years, as evinced by stone and bone artifacts uncovered in archeological studies which display clear examples of the same design.

Today totem poles are usually divided into two distinct styles. The "Northern" style is said to belong to the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples of Southeast Alaska and Northwestern British Columbia, Canada. In this style the most obvious feature is that the use of colors is almost entirely restricted to black, red, and turquoise.

The Haida are widely regarded as the best carvers, even by their neighbors, and they take extensive pride in being considered the finest totem pole artists on the coast. Many if not most of the poles found in museums across the world are of Haida make, and most poles designed today show significant influence of classical Haida style. Historically Haida carvers were frequently imported to produce poles for wealthy aristocrats in other regions, despite the existence of local talent. Haida poles are characterized by extremely complex designs with many intertwined, space-filling figures and elaborate surface decoration. The Haida style shows a fluidity of curve movement from one figure to another such that it is difficult to focus on a particular figure without following its curves down or up the pole to other figures. A notable character found on many Haida poles but not found elsewhere is the "watchman", a small human wearing a conical rain hat, and usually found in groups of two or three at the top of the pole. They are said to guard the village and give warning when unwelcome people or spirits approach.

Tsimshian poles are typically less exuberant than Haida examples, and are notable for very little or no paint. The expressions of figures on Tsimshian poles are felt by viewers to be somehow more "gentle" in comparison to Tlingit and Haida types, and surface lines and curve transitions are less sharply defined. Also, many Tsimshian poles have a more shallow relief, and as such seem to be more solid and treelike. Neighbors of the Tsimshian on the Northern B.C. mainland, the Haisla and Nuxalk (Bella Coola) also share in and contribute to the Northern style, although examples of their works are limited and difficult to distinguish from Tsimshian models.

The northern neighbors of the Tsimshian, the Tlingit, produce poles similar in style to Haida work, but the tendency is towards less intertwining of figures, replaced instead by distinct boundaries between each subject. Surface decorations are less prominent on Tlingit poles, and they tend to be shorter and show fewer characters. Also, certain Tlingit poles, particularly those found on the western coast of Prince of Wales Island, are notable for having their undecorated portion squared off like lumber instead of being left in the round. Eye forms also tend to be larger and more rounded, although not as softly as Tsimshian examples.

The Northern style of totem pole carving never historically extended further north than Haines, Alaska, despite the Tlingit occupying territory as far north as the mouth of the Copper River. This was mostly due to the near total lack of Western Redcedar trees north of Frederick Sound in Southeast Alaska. The most common trees in Southeast Alaska are Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock, neither of which are as easily worked in large forms, and both of which lack the inherent decay resistance of Western Redcedar. Although Yellow-cedar is available in the region and is almost as easily worked and decay resistant as Western Redcedar, it is not very common and does not typically grow to sizes large enough for adequate totem pole construction. With the aid of modern forestry and transportation however, totem poles are today found at least as far north as Anchorage, Alaska, and can be found in nearly all major Tlingit communities.

The Wakashan and Coast Salish-speaking peoples of Southern British Columbia (Vancouver Island and the nearby mainland) and of Northwestern Washington State shared a "Southern" painting and carving style. The dramatic thunderbirds and similar crest figures on totem poles and housefront paintings of the Wakashan-speaking Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) peoples are the best known examples of this style, characterized by much more elaborate use of colors, particularly black, red, white, turquoise, green, and yellow.

The original territory of the Southern style of totem pole carving did not historically extend south beyond the coast of the Olympic peninsula, however today other more southern tribes have imported the practice of carving totem poles from their northern neighbors. Although they did not historically carve totem poles, the southern tribes along the Washington and Oregon coasts, Puget Sound, and the Columbia River did produce art within the same basic stylistic parameters of Northwest coast art, and carved houseposts and greeting figures of moderate size.

Although recognizably different, the Northern and Southern styles share a close enough resemblance that scholars assume a common origin, as well as a substantial amount of mutual influence over the centuries preceding European contact. Indeed, to the unknowledgable it can be difficult at first brush to differentiate between the two major styles. However, most residents along the coast accustomed with totem poles from their own region can intuitively tell the major styles apart despite not having been taught about the precise differences between them.

One of the most important features of totem poles, and one which they share in common with all other forms of woodworking on the coast, is also one of the most easily overlooked. This is the surface finish of exposed wood on the carving, which is the last thing worked during production and is one of the most demanding parts of creating a quality pole. The surface finish consists of thousands of fine adze cuts incised in parallel lines that cover all the unpainted surfaces of the pole and follow the contours of the sculpture.

An experienced carver will judge the work of another mostly by the quality of their surface finish, by its regularity and smoothness, by the ways the carver worked with imperfections in the wood, and by how cleanly the adzing follows the contour of the forms. This surface finishing is universal along the entire coast no matter what style the pole is executed in, and is a quick way to gauge the authenticity of a particular example and the practical experience of the person who carved it.

Meaning and Purpose

The meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures which produce them. Totem poles may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. Some poles are erected to celebrate cultural beliefs, but others are intended mostly as artistic presentations. Certain types of totem pole are part of mortuary structures incorporating grave boxes with carved supporting poles, or recessed backs in which grave boxes were placed. Poles are also carved to illustrate stories, to commemorate historic persons, to represent shamanic powers, and to provide objects of public ridicule.

It should be noted that totem poles were never objects of worship. The association of totem poles with "idol worship" was an idea promulgated by Christian missionaries in the region through the latter half of the nineteenth and the early half of the twentieth centuries. The same assumption was made by certain early European explorers, but the more observant later explorers such as Jean-Francois de La Perouse noted that totem poles were never treated reverently, and that people seemed to pay no particular attention to them other than to occasionally illustrate stories. Indeed, the fact that they were usually left to rot in place when people abandoned a village is a significant sign of their relative lack of religious import.

The poles used for public ridicule are usually called "shame poles", and were erected to shame individuals or groups for unpaid debts. One instance of this is the Lincoln Pole in Saxman, Alaska; it was apparently created to shame the U.S. government into repaying the Tlingit people for the value of slaves which were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation. Other explanations for it have arisen as the original reason was forgotten or supressed, however this meaning is still recounted by a number of Tlingit elders.

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.adi clan into repaying a debt incurred by three of their slaves who impregnated some young women in Shakes's clan. When the Kiks.adi 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.adi clan. This debt was never repaid, and thus the pole still stands next to the Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell. This particular pole's unique crossbar shape has become popularly associated with the town of Wrangell. It was thus used, without recognizing the meaning of the pole, as part of the title design of the Wrangell Sentinel newspaper, where it is still seen today.

The construction of shame poles has essentially ceased within the last century. This is attributable to a decline in interclan rivalries and clan relationships in general, and to a desire for solidarity among most native tribes. However, as feelings of independence and nationalism increase among Northwest coast people, erecting shame poles against the American and Canadian governments has been occasionally proposed, though in a joking manner. If outrage against some political decision is strong enough among the people of a particular Northwest coast tribe the erection of a new shame pole may again become a possibility, although the cost of construction will likely be a major inhibition.

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 erected 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 celebrator 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, and the fire is made with chips carved from the pole.

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 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. That 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. It is best to treat the question of totem pole maintenance on a case by case basis, especially asking the artist for their opinion on the matter during or just after the production process. Read more

The World's Largest Collection of Standing Totem Poles Keeps Getting Bigger
  Smithsonian - September 22, 2022