Totem Poles - the Legacy of Native American Indians and Tribal Customs

The Legacy and History of Native American Indian Totem Poles

Majestic and magnificient, American Indian totem poles stood tall along the Native American landscape. They became a lasting legacy of the first people who lived long ago, on the North American continent. The Pacific Northwest is the only area Native American totem poles have been found. Totem poles tell a story of the rich culture of the Native Americans. You can see many totem poles in museums across the United States.

These tall poles told a special story about the individual it was commissioned for, including stories about their ancestors. Everything carved on the pole had a special meaning. Often the owner had to explain their story for the totem pole to be appreciated fully. For example, if an eagle was put on the pole it could mean that the owner’s ancestory had something to do with an eagle, he could have had a supernatural experience with the eagle, or he could have recently encountered an eagle. There is always a story attached to the inanimate objects that are used on the totem poles.

The first white man to ever see a totem pole in American was Capt. James Cook in 1778.


Totem Poles Have no Religious Meaning

According to Wikipedia “The word totem is derived from the Ojibwe word odoodem, - his kinship group". It is an anthropological word that references the idea that a particular animal is the ancestor of a kin people. They treat that animal with respect, and special care, and never eat it or hunt it.

Characteristics of an authentic totem pole:

  • are carved from wood
  • some were placed in a room in the tent
  • if they were carried, it was only done by men
  • some stayed outside the tent to show the status of the people who resided in the tent
  • all are hand carved
  • totem poles have carved artwork of humans, animals and mythical creatures.
  • they have no religious significance


Story Pole
Story Pole
Family Pole
Family Pole
Shame  Pole
Shame Pole
Potlach Pole
Potlach Pole
Mortuary Poles
Mortuary Poles
Memorial Pole
Memorial Pole

The Reasons for Totem Poles

They were created to tell a legend, a myth or a story. They were also built to commemorate the special events such as births and marriages and other important lifecycle events.


Tribal leaders would order a pole to be carved for 6 main reasons.

  • Story Poles depicted a tale or a legend as a way to pass down the oral stories to future generations. At the time, there was no written language.
  • Family Poles were carved to display family lineage, the tribal history, and the social standing of the Native American family.
  • Shame Poles targeted those who failed in some way, whether it was to repay a debt, of because of some unpleasant action on their part. If someone was disgraced by the tribe, a shame pole was commissioned by the chief to expose their wrongdoing. The shame pole would only be removed after the person paid a pre agreed price or find another way to make peace. The shame pole was very effective.
  • Potlach Poles celebrated momentous occasions, festivals, and commerate special events. These poles were generally the largest of all the totem poles.
  • Mortuary Poles were used as a way to honor a chief who died. The story of the head of the tribe would be carved into the wooden pole to portray the accomplishments of the chief. It was customary for people who were leaders and high ranking part of the tribe to be cremated after they died. Their ashes were placed in a hollow part at the top of the totem pole. As Native Americns converted to Christianity, grave marker poles became more commonplace as cremating decreased.
  • Memorial Poles honored the life of someone important in the tribe.

The Process of Creating Totem Poles

Usually, a totem pole was commissioned by the tribal chief. The carver would first design the totem pole on paper. This would enable them to know the dimensions of the log they needed. The bark would be stripped, the first one to three inches of the log, known as the saproot is removed and the log is set out to dry. A dry log becomes easy to carve. Usually, totem poles are made up of a single log. Separate logs may have been added to create fins and beaks and teeth, etc.
The entire pole was never completely painted. They only painted the details that highlighted the characteristic of the object. Just to create the paint alone, was labor intensive. A female member of the tribe would chew salmon eggs and then spit them in a bowl to create a base for the oil based paint. Powders were mixed in to make 4 main colors that were used on the totem poles.

  • White colored paint came from clam shells
  • Black was made from charcoal
  • Turquoise came from copper oxide
  • Red was made from iron ore



The carver used tools made from wood, bone, animal antlers and animal teeth, bones, and shells. As the white man settled on their lands, the American Indians discovered the metals the settlers brought with them. With these metals, the carvers made stronger tools to create the images on the totem poles.

The totem poles were created by an expert carver and his apprentices. The expert would carve the lower 10 feet of the pole because that what was eye level. His intricacies and expertise could be closely examined. The less experienced apprentices would carve the higher part.

A Man Stands Up Straight

The red cedar poles used in making family totem poles were called Gyáa'aang by the people of southeastern Alaska and coastal British Columbia. this language is known as Haida. The translation for the word Gyáa'aang means a man stands up straight. Oral history from these people indicates creating totem poles is an ancient tradition.

Most totem poles that once decorated the territories in the Pacific Northwest are gone. In the latter part of the 1800’s, many tribes stopped carving these monumental poles because Canada made the ceremonies illegal. Those who did make the poles, did so in secret. As time went on Native Indians moved into single family wood houses and no longer made these towering tales of their ancestry. The poles that were left were either taken away, sold to collectors and museums, or chopped down or left to decay.

The Pacific Northwest Area where Totem Poles Existed

Totem Poles See a Revival

Tourists who would see the poles marveled at the art work and design and totem poles began to be looked at as powerful symbols of the area. In the 1880’s and 1890’s people would come by steam boats to view the totem poles. Native artists started to carve smaller models as souvenirs to these tourists. Exhibitions began to be held and the existing full sized totem poles were brought on display to places in 1876, like the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, other other places throughout the U.S.  In 1910,  a Totem Park was establish in Sitka, Alaska as a national monument.


In the 1930’s the Federal Government of the United States created several more Totem Parks in Southeast Alaska.  They hired Native carvers to replicate some totem poles. In 1951, Canada dropped the law banning the celebration of putting up totem poles.  In Vancouver, Victoria, and British Columbia, Canada hired Native carvers to make new totem poles for Totem Parks they set up. Today, you can still find Native people making totem poles to celebrate their relatives, family histories, and momentous celebrations.
 

Interesting Info

A little bit of trivia: 

A shame pole still exists in Saxman, Alaska to shame the United States government into paying back a northwest tribe for the cost of slaves who were freed when the Emancipation Proclamation was established.

Did you know? totem poles are the most expensive Native American pieces of art in existence

Would you believe? there is no such thing as “low man on the totem pole?

Some totem poles were created to represent that the figures on top were of greater importance. Some poles were designed where the more important figures were at the bottom or the middle because that the part most often looked at.

If you are looking to buy a totem pole know your prices:

A hand carved totem pole will sell for more than $500 a foot. To be an authentic piece, the totem pole needs to pass certain tests. it must be created by a trained carver from the Pacific Coast; it must have been blessed by the elders or natives who are part of the totem pole tradition. They must never have been carved with a chain saw. It must be hand carved.

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Comments 49 comments

Nan Mynatt 5 years ago

Great hub, and thanks for clearifing the totem poles, what they really mean.


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

Native American Books.;)


LoraKayAlexander 5 years ago

Awwwwww I love totem Poles. They have always fascinated me!

My Great Grnadmother is Cherokee. I love the spirit. Thank you for sharing. I voted up/useful/awesome. Keep up the good work.


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 5 years ago from the Ether

great hub, toknowinfo! i've always found native american history and culture fascinating and this hub really played into that interest. voted up and awesome. i had no idea what the meaning of the totem pole is, so awesome job!


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Nan, Totem are really interesting. Thanks for stopping by and reading.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Ment, Thanks for visiting and commenting. It is always nice to have your presence in the comment section.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Great stuff! Very enjoyable reading.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi LoraKay, I think it is very cool, that you are part Cherokee. The American Indian culture and philosophy is very beautiful. I am glad you stopped by. Thank you very much for the high ratings.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Kitty, I am glad you enjoyed this hub. There is such a richness to the ways of the American Indians. (I refer to them as American Indians, because the American Indian I met told me that "his people" preferred that to Native Americans)Thank you for your kind words and your contribution.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Will, I am always happy to see you. I am glad you enjoy this hub. Thanks for your kind words.


rpalulis profile image

rpalulis 5 years ago from NY

Wow very interesting history on the Totem Pole, its amazing the craftsmen with what little they had to work with. I was shocked to learn how they made paint, very cool. Great hub!


Ingenira profile image

Ingenira 5 years ago

I often encounter these totem poles during my stay in Canada. We also have something similar here in Borneo Island (Sarawak state of Malaysia).

Now that I know that it comes with background story, I wish they placed a small info board beside the totem to tell the story. That'd certainly help people to appreciate these historical pole more.

Another great hub !

P/S, I see your hub score escalating for the past few weeks. Congrates, I am happy for you. You certainly deserve it, your articles are of great quality ! Well done !


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi RP, To think that the hardest part of painting the totem pole was creating the paint. And creating the paint was the only part women could participate in creating the totem poles. (maybe they helped choose the colors). Thanks for stopping by and reading.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Ingeria, You are right, there are other places in the world that have totem poles, but they would not be made by American Indians. Thank you for sharing your experience of seeing totem poles in Canada. It must be awesome. I appreciate your kind comments.


schoolmarm profile image

schoolmarm 5 years ago from Florida

What a very interesting hub! I had no idea that the women had to chew salmon eggs for the paint. I really enjoyed this information. Thanks!


psychicdog.net profile image

psychicdog.net 5 years ago

very original and informative. Thanks Toknowinfo


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Schoolmarm, It is nice to see you again. Glad you learned a thing or to and enjoyed the info.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

HiPdog, Thanks for stopping by and for the kind comments.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

It seems that Totem Poles have always been sort of a part of the landscape in Minnesota where I grew up.Like local customs we absorb some of the lore without conscious thought. Very nice hub.


BobbiRant profile image

BobbiRant 5 years ago from New York

Totem poles are so beautiful and they show that when Europeans thought of the Indians as uncivilized, they were dead wrong. Creativeness is not uncivilized, but many will label a culture badly because it is not understood. Beautiful write.


amillar profile image

amillar 5 years ago from Scotland, UK

I didn't know that totem poles weren't discovered until as late as 1778, or that they 'have no religious meaning'.

As usual there’s a lot of useful information here.

Up and useful.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Dah, I am glad that this hub made you think about things that we sometimes become oblivious to. I am curious about the totem poles in Minnesota. Either they were brought there for display, or they are different kinds of totem poles. The totem poles I talk about in this hub only come from the Pacific Northwest. Trees were usually not as tall in other areas of the U.S. to create the same height totem poles.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Bobbi, American Indian culture is very beautiful. They had so much to teach us and it is lost. I think the world would be so much better a place if they would have won instead of the white man. Thanks for reading, commenting and your kind words.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Amillar, Glad you learned so much. Thanks for the up rating and your kind comments.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

toknowinfo

You are right.I have seen totem poles most of my life. While they may not be native to the mid west they are certainly around.a quick search of the internet shows that there are modern one being made and sold.Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I never really thought to question the authenticity.


A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

I love Haida and Salish artwork and totems. I had designed a tatto using both styles, still have the flash somewhere in my house. Thank you for sharing.


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 5 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi toknowinfo, great in depth and informative history of Totem Poles, very fascinating and interesting read !

Awesome and up !!!

Have a great week my friend !


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Dah, Glad you looked into the totem poles in Minnesota.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi AA, It is nice to know that you appreciate American Indian artwork and totem poles. Thanks for stopping by and for your comments.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Tom, Thanks for stopping by and your wonderful up rating. I am glad you enjoyed learning about totem poles. Have a great week also. Looking forward to seeing you soon.


Fossillady profile image

Fossillady 5 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

Very interesting, You dispelled a few myths and that's always great! I'm glad they are making a comeback. It's hard to imagine they were ever discarded and disregarded.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Kathi, It is nice to see you again. It is hard to imagine they couldn't appreciate the beauty and artwork of the American Indians. What we did to the totem poles, we did to the people. It think it is sad. At least we still have some of their culture, and if you get an opportunity to talk to American Indian and learn more about their beliefs, you will see there is so much to learn from them.


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 5 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Interesting hub, as usual, TKI. The statement: "They must never have been carved with a chain saw. It must be hand carved." made me laugh.

Imagine how awful something like that would be. A production line of Native American men whacking out several totem poles per day, and some poor Native American women at the other end of the assembly line chewing salmon eggs like mad to make the paint base and never catching up.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Ian, That is some image you created. I will be looking for a poem about it soon from you.


Fay Paxton 5 years ago

I find totem poles to be absolutely fascinating, but always thought they had some kind of religious meaning. Your excellent article dispelled a few myths. Thanks.

voted up/awesome


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Great Hub! And I had NO IDEA that there was such a thing as a shame pole!! LOL!!! "For you, we are making A SHAAAAAME POOOLEEE!!!" O__________O *gasp*


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Fay, Glad you liked the article, and that you learned a few things. Thanks for the up ratings.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Simone, Thanks for stopping by. So you like the shame pole idea. Maybe instead of flagging we can use a shame pole (LOL)


Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Very interesting hub. I have always lived close to reservations most of my life and have seen some magnificent Totem Poles. Never realized the cost of them though.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago Author

Hi Susan, I am glad you shared your comments. Totem Poles are unassuming in the things they signify and in what you would think they cost.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

Hi toknowinfo. I really like this page because although fairly light in tone it gives a very comprehensive summary of all the main aspects of totem pole history, design and significance. For these reasons I am promoting the page in a review hub I have just published which links to ten of the best articles on native American culture on this site.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 4 years ago Author

Hi Greensleeves, Thank you very much for promoting my hub on your review page. I look forward to reading it. I appreciate your comments and I hope to be rated highly by more of your reviews.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

My pleasure toknowinfo. This hub is not heavy going, yet contains plenty of info. As an overall package - succinct writing, clear presentation and illustrations - I had no problem at all including this page in my review.


tyana 4 years ago

that was very good facts keep it up!


kkrock10 3 years ago

coool but i have a question. how amny heads are on a typical totem pole?


rosie98 3 years ago

I am doing a project on Totem Poles and this was very helpful so thank you very much!


phong 3 years ago

very good info


Steph Tietjen profile image

Steph Tietjen 2 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

I enjoyed learning about the different types on totem poles--something I've been wondering about for along time. Thanks


Annoyed student 15 months ago

you should put down what tribe is each totem pole photo is from!!!!! I'm never using this website again!

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