Totem Poles of Coastal Tribes - USA and Canada

Totem Pole In Saxman Totem Park ~

Totem Pole in Saxman Totem Park, Ketchikan, Alaska
Totem Pole in Saxman Totem Park, Ketchikan, Alaska | Source

Amazing sculptures from wood carving ~

If you ever find yourself heading to the state of Washington or up through Canada and Alaska, make sure you have a good camera. The totem poles of the coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Canada are such unique and amazing sculptures you will want pictures to take home with you. These tribes have taken wood carving to new heights.

These spectacular and intricate wood carvings on the monumental poles puts the coastal tribes in a class by themselves, as masters of this type of design in symbolism and treatment of wood.

The size of these carvings can be 30, 40 feet and possibly taller. Due to the size of the circumference of the poles these are not always easy to put upright into place. The raising of the totem pole is still done in the traditional way of the ancestors.

This can take hundreds of strong men, using ropes, a scaffold and cross beams, to haul the pole into place and brace it.

The carver will perform a dance at the base of the pole with his carving tools in his hands, showing them off to everyone. He is then paid at the potlatch which follows where much celebrating and dancing is enjoyed by everyone.

Ketchikan, Alaska ~

Totem Pole Ketchikan Alaska , circa 1901
Totem Pole Ketchikan Alaska , circa 1901 | Source

Cascade Mountains ~

West of the Cascade Mountains in a beautiful setting where oceanic waters are fascinating to watch, peaceful and serene in some areas yet wild and treacherous in others, where coastal rock formations provide natural caves and areas to explore and where a 14,411 ft. pyramid shaped mountain, Mt. Rainier, has for over 500,000 years watched over the entire scenic view, lived the Nez Perz, Puyallup, Nisqually, Swinomish, Tlingit and many other tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

The heritage of these people is rich and colorful and it shows in their creativity, like the totem poles. In the early days of inhabitant, life was good for them and they had an abundance of food and natural supplies for clothing, masks, ceremonial objects, plank homes, and canoes.

These Native American tribes have been successful living in this region for over 10,000 years. With a rich bounty of foods such as salmon, oysters, clams, shrimp, turtles, eggs, these people never developed an agricultural system. They did not have to for it was all there naturally for them.

They were hunters and gatherers. Game as well as wild berries, nuts, fruits and vegetables were available and plentiful. Between the gifts of the ocean and the forests they never wanted for more.

You might think that with such a wealth of food and supplies at their fingertips they might have become lazy, careless and unconcerned about protection and the need to ensure yearly renewal of plants and animals, but they had a deep respect for their land and what it offered and they had reverence for and a spiritual connection with nature.

The K'alyaan Totem Pole of the Tlingit Kiks.ádi Clan ~

Totem Pole Sitka NHP , erected at Sitka National Historical Park to commemorate the lives lost   in the 1804 Battle of Sitka
Totem Pole Sitka NHP , erected at Sitka National Historical Park to commemorate the lives lost in the 1804 Battle of Sitka | Source

Your experience about totem poles ~

Have you ever been up close in person to a totem pole ?

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Preserved cultural identity ~

These coastal tribes had an advanced culture. They knew then, and now, how to manage their environment and learned how to preserve their cultural identities throughout time.

They made beautiful baskets and jewelry, carved masks and costumes for their dances and ceremonial rituals. They still make one of the most unique and phenomenal works of art in the world, the totem pole, known worldwide for its fascinating bold appearance and wonderful wood carving technique.

The poles were, and still are, typically carved from the tall, straight Western Redcedar. If you have never seen a totem pole up close and personal you are missing out on one of the most amazing and spiritual experiences ever.

Gya'a'aang is the term used in the Haida language for totem poles. The Haida live on the inside passage in Alaska. The Haida, it is believed, were the first tribes to begin carving the totem pole then the practice spread down the west coast to other tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

Mistakenly, totem poles were considered "idol worship" by very early European explorers and Christian Missionaries. This is far from the truth. The poles were never treated as religious objects. They were representative of the clan's ancestors and lineage, history, and legendary events and usually told a story of the clan or one of their members. Each animal carved on the pole is symbolic of an individual's totem animal, or spirit animal.

Western Red Cedar ~

This Western Red Cedar is quite old. It is a perfect choice for a totem pole if it should fall or have to be cut down for safety issues.
This Western Red Cedar is quite old. It is a perfect choice for a totem pole if it should fall or have to be cut down for safety issues. | Source

A Gitxsan pole (left) and Kwakwaka'wakw pole (right) ~

Totem poles at Thunderbird Park in Victoria, British Columbia
Totem poles at Thunderbird Park in Victoria, British Columbia | Source

Raven on the totem pole ~

One of the most common figures on the totem pole is that of Raven. Raven was and still is considered a "trickster" to many Native American tribes. There are many stories about Raven that have been told for generations by these tribes.

One of them is called "How Raven Stole Crow's Potlatch". Raven was always tricking someone into believing his outrageous stories to get what he wanted, usually food, then he would fly away with a big smile, leaving them to wonder what had happened.

Another common symbol was the eagle. Since Eagle could fly higher than any other bird, the people believed he could communicate with the Great Spirit and bring back messages. And because of his great eyesight, Eagle could warn the chief of any approaching trouble far in advance.

Other figures on the pole may tell of the wealth of the clan such as by how many rings are on the "watchman's" conical shaped hat.

If anyone ever refers to you as "the low man on the totem pole", kindly thank them for the honor -- then just smile knowingly, like Raven, and go on your way, leaving them to wonder what you know that they don't. You see, the lowest figure on the totem pole was usually symbolic of the most important or prestigious ancestor or member of the clan.

~ ~ ~ ~

Three Frogs Pole ~

The Kiks.ádi, or Three Frogs Pole, in Wrangell, Alaska
The Kiks.ádi, or Three Frogs Pole, in Wrangell, Alaska | Source

Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest

Video with David Boxley ~

This video with David Boxley is so interesting to watch. David gives so much information on the history, traditions and cultures of the coastal tribes. He is a totem pole carver and you can tell he has great respect for the art and history of his people as well as other tribes.

The video is part one of a series of six and they are well worth watching if you love to learn about Native American art and culture.


Totem Pole Carving with David Boxley ~

Note from author ~

Thank you for reading my article. Your opinions are important to me and let me know your interests. This helps me to offer more of your favorite subjects to read about. Your time and interest are very much appreciated. I hope to hear from you in the comments section below.

I write on several different subjects, all evergreen articles. You can read more about me and see more articles I wrote by clicking on my name by the small picture of me at the top right of this page.

Blessings and may you always walk in peace and harmony, softly upon Mother Earth.

Phyllis Doyle Burns - Lantern Carrier, Spiritual Mentor
~ ~ ~ ~


© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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Comments 36 comments

Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

Interesting hub about totem poles Phyllis. They are great examples of carving and have great meaning to the tribes representing ancestors as you say. Some aboriginal and islander tribes in Australia also carve totem poles to represent and honor their deceased as well. Voted up.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

They are amazing; we have a pretty cool one at our local college and quite a few other locations around Olympia.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

This is fascinating phyllis, living in England I have always been fascinated by the Native America and Canadian indians, and the Totems are so lovely, I did smile when I read about the Raven because I wondered if you were going to mention it, I have seen so many films that mention the Raven being a spiritual part of their history, wonderful hub, loved it! voted and shared, nell


ChitrangadaSharan profile image

ChitrangadaSharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

Amazing structures in wood carving! The information is also very interesting regarding the concerned tribes.

Well done and voted up!


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

These works of art are fascinating. You've really presented an interesting hub here on the history and symbolism of the Totem Poles. It makes me want to go and see them in person. Nice pictures.


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 2 years ago from California

Such an interesting subject--I find them fascinating --


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

I love totem poles, so thanks for the interesting information and beautiful photos. Its fascinating what symbols and animals were important to different tribes and what they represented


starbright profile image

starbright 2 years ago from Scandinavia

These are beautifully made and the history of what they symbolize is an extra treat to hear about. Thanks for sharing.


sheilamyers 2 years ago

Very interesting hubs and it reminded me of the history I learned while in Alaska. Thanks for including the part about what the totem poles represent. Many people today hold to the mistaken belief that the poles are religious in nature.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Billy, thank you for the visit and comment. Totem poles are amazing, aren't they? I so miss the Pacific Northwest and seeing the totem poles up close. My gosh, I have not been to Olympia for years, but I do remember the totem poles there. Thanks again, Billy.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Hi Nell. LOL - yes, I cannot write about many Native American traditions without mentioning Raven. He is quite a character and trickster and I love the Coyote and Raven stories. Thank you so much for the visit and comment.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Hi ChitrangadaSharan -- thank you so much for the visit and comment. I really appreciate it. Thanks for the votes, too.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Hi Peg. Thank you very for the read and comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. I love totem poles and really miss seeing them in person. Thanks again.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Hi Audrey. I am glad you found this hub interesting. Yes, they are fascinating carvings. The video with David Boxley was really interesting to me. I love the way he explains the history and cultural beliefs of the totem poles and other traditions of his people.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Hi CM - thank you. I was very lucky to find so many public domain photos to use. They are beautiful. I love to study totem poles to read them and see if I can figure out the story they represent of the tribe or clan. Thanks for the visit and comment.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Hi starbright - you are most welcome. Thank you for your visit and comment. I love the symbolism of totem poles.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Hi Sheila. I am so glad you appreciate the totem poles and what they represent. You are right -- they are not religious in nature, they are symbolic, telling a story about the history of the tribe or clan. I had a difficult time deciding which category to put the hub in. I wanted to define it as Native American spirituality, but it shows at the top of my hub as Religion and Philosophy -- maybe I will change the category to Education, which contains Native American history and culture. What do you think?


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Jodah, thank you for being the first to comment on my totem pole hub. I did not know that the aboriginals in your country also carve totem poles. I hope you write an article on that, I would love to read it and learn more.

Thanks again, for your visit and comment. I really appreciate it


WiccanSage profile image

WiccanSage 2 years ago

Phyllis, beautiful work on this hub and an excellent resource, and it's funny how we were just talking about them on my other hub I hadn't even seen this yet. They're such amazing works of art. I love the 'low man on the totem pole' comment. Very interesting.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Hi Sage - the title of your hub caught my eye, because I was working on this hub at the time. I learned something new about differences in Wiccan, Pagan beliefs that you wrote about and the Native American beliefs I wrote about. Thank you so much, Sage, for visiting and reading my hub. We learn from each other and that is a good thing. I appreciate your comment.


Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 2 years ago from Shelton

what an a wonderful share, the totem poles are fascinating Phyllis..


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Thank you, Frank. So good of you to read and comment. I really appreciate your visits.


MG Singh profile image

MG Singh 2 years ago from Singapore

fascinating post


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Well thank you very much, MG Singh. I appreciate your visit and comment.


sheilamyers 2 years ago

Phyllis: With the choices, I would place it in the education section.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

I agree with you, Sheila. That is where I first put it and will switch it back. Thanks.


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 2 years ago

Boy, I loved that Phyllis. I sure learned about totem poles, though I think that I remember reading about the spirits in my studies of animal spirits.

I really liked learning the tribe names and how they lived and such. The video enthused me and I listened to every word of the intro song. I also liked the photos of the totem poles. I have never seen them in real life but I have seen plenty of photos of them.

You did a good job with it. Thumbs up and shared.

Kevin


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Kevin, thank you so much for the awesome comment -- I really appreciate it. The video really was very interesting to me. I have never seen such an in depth explanation on totem poles, their symbolism and the spiritual aspect.

I really miss living in the Pacific Northwest where I could walk up to a totem pole try to read the story it told. A totem pole is just as alive as the tree it came from. I would reach out to touch it and could feel the spirituality in it. It is a wonderful experience. Thanks again, Kevin, for the visit, votes and sharing. I really appreciate this.


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 2 years ago

You are welcome. As I said a while ago, I love Indian history I have just been trying write my Hubs and post on my blog.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Examiner-1, I just read one of your hubs and your profile. You mention that you think you have found your niche with writing and I believe you definitely have. You are a great writer and have very informative hubs that are a pleasure to read. Thanks again, Kevin. I learned some new things about the Lawrence's Goldfinch - awesome hub.


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 2 years ago

Thank you Phyllis. I am still trying to improve my writing - e.g. grammar, etc. - and find out what I am good/not-so-good, at writing about. I will keep trying!

Kevin


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Kevin, that is good you keep trying to do better. I think you are doing great now.


Genna East profile image

Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

I love your articles on Native Americans; I always learn so much from your attention to detail and excellent writing. These totem poles are amazing – both in size and artistry, as well as the significance of their culture. Beautifully done, Phyllis!


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Genna, thank you so much. I am very happy to know you love my articles on Native Americans and really appreciate your kind praise. I so admire the beauty and significance of Native American art and culture. Thanks again for the visit and comment.


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Totem Poles of Coastal Tribes - USA and Canada is informative and very interesting


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada. Author

Thank you very much, DDE. I appreciate your visit and comment.

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