Totem poles are sculptures that are carved from large trees and are an integral part of many indigenous people in many parts of the world. Apart from aesthetic purposes, totem poles also bear many different meanings depending on who created them. They may represent stories, important events or traits and characteristics that a tribe embodies.
While some people may mistakenly think that figures on totem poles are deities that the tribes worshipped, the figures are actually of clan members, guardians or ancestors that played an important part in an event or story. Alternatively, some totem poles may feature animals thought to symbolize traits important to the clan, which can also be seen as a marking of the clan. Some popular animals found on totem poles include the raven, representing the Creator, the killer whale, representing strength, and the bald eagle, representing peace and friendship. There are also instances of many other animals on totem poles, such as the beaver, otter, thunderbird, mountain goat, moose, wolf, porpoise, seal, sea lion, salmon, frog and grizzly bear. In fact, the word “totem” comes from “totemism”, a belief by the Okibwa tribe that sacred or supernatural animals were the ancestors of humans. By depicting animals in their totem poles, the Native Americans were acknowledging and respecting their forebears.
Totem poles may be considered an important symbol of Native American culture, but they were not as widely produced as some may believe. Only tribes that were living in areas lush with tall trees were able to obtain the materials to create them. These were mainly the Haida, Tlingit and Coast Salish tribes.
The purposes of totem poles are as varied as the tribes who created them. Some totem poles are used as a means of recording the history and stories of a tribe, particularly their ancestral spirits and family history. Totem poles were also erected when a clan changed hands, to commemorate the previous chief and to celebrate the new one. Other totem poles served other purposes, such as genealogy poles, which were commonly placed in front of homes and used to represent the social status of the family that lived there. Memorial poles usually featured a clan member that had passed away and could tell stories of their life, deeds or virtues they had. Mortuary poles were also carved in honor of the deceased, but they included an additional compartment to place the ashes of that person. Finally, there was the shame pole, which was erected to ridicule and embarrass someone who did something wrong, usually featuring an upside down likeness of the person. Once the person made their amends, the shame pole would be taken down. One shame pole of note was built in Cordova, Alaska, featuring the face of an oil company businessman. The shame pole was intended to embarrass the oil company for not paying the debts they owed, arising from damages caused by the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.
The process of commissioning the building of a totem pole itself often required some measure of wealth. As such, only important figures or events were depicted on totem poles. Totem poles were usually made of red cedar timber, a sturdy wood that repelled insects and could withstand wind, rain and time. Since only one single log was used, the carver would first design the pole on paper to decide how tall each figure would be, and thus how long a log would be needed to accommodate all the designs. When a suitable log is found, it is stripped of its bark and its sapwood removed, and then allowed to dry. After that, the resulting log is light and easy to carve. Every totem pole was usually completely hand-carved, even the cultural ones that are still created today.
Totem poles were normally painted with bright colors that could be made available by natural means. For example, black was a common color that could be obtained by grinding soot, graphite or charcoal. Red was obtained from red ochre or iron, while blue green was derived from copper sulfide and white came from clam shells. However, obtaining these dyes could be costly, laborious and also time-consuming depending on the materials required. To create an oil-based paint, the women tribe members would chew on salmon eggs and spit them into a bowl, where they would be mixed with powders containing the desired pigment. Since creating the paint was expensive and required a lot of work, most totem poles were not painted fully – often only the important details would be colored.
There are differing views on whether the order of the figures matter on a totem pole. While some say that the order does not matter at all, others believe that the order of the figures is central to the story that the totem pole represents. It is generally accepted that if a figure is on the bottom of a pole, it is not necessarily the least important. Sometimes, the most important figures may be at the bottom or in the middle of the pole.
Some historians may argue that totem poles were not created until after the nineteenth century. This claim is difficult to dispute as totem poles are all made of cedar wood, so any earlier poles would have already rotted away. In either case, there is little evidence of totem poles from earlier times. Regardless of whether totem poles have been around for centuries, a large number of them were created sometime around or after the nineteenth century, when the introduction of metal industrial tools made it easier to gather, carve and paint the wood. Before then, the carvers would use wood, stone, antlers, bones, beaver teeth and shells as carving tools. Even now, totem pole carvers still forge their own tools by shaping the steel and attaching it to a tree branch as a handle.
Today, totem poles can still be found around the country, mainly in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Unfortunately, many totem poles were destroyed across the centuries, particularly when settlers began to arrive in America. Additionally, the moist air around the places where totem poles were erected caused some of them to rot from the inside out, a feature of the cedar wood. The remaining totem poles are mostly kept in museums these days. There are also several native carvers still creating totem poles to preserve their culture and heritage, although not to the extent their forefathers did.
While there are not many written accounts of the early Native American tribes, the totem poles they have left behind still tell their stories and legends, having become an important aspect of history.
Jun 02, 2020