Totem Poles of Coastal Tribes - USA and Canada
Totem Pole In Saxman Totem Park
Amazing Sculptures From Wood
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.
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
Your Experience About Totem Poles
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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
A Gitxsan Pole and Kwakwaka'wakw Pole
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
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
© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns
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