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History of Totem Poles: Billboards of The Past

Updated on August 9, 2020
Carved Raven Totem pole
Carved Raven Totem pole
Collection of Haida Totems
Collection of Haida Totems
Authentic Totem Poles
Authentic Totem Poles

The Indigenous People of British Columbia and Canada

Long before the discovery of the Indigenous People in the Pacific Northwest, the tribes of the Haida and Tlingits lived peacefully off the land and sea. The Haida were exceptional carvers, even carving their boats from one single tree. Imagine carving totem poles, something so vast, so intricate with nothing for tools but rocks and seashells Or carving a wooden boat capable of holding 50 people without proper tools of today. The Haidas were the dominant culture among the First Nations in Canada's Pacific Islands. Over the winter, they would carve out their boats from a single red cedar tree. Their totems were also from a single tree, sometimes as tall as 50 feet. Mention of totem poles was by Captain James Cook in 1778 when he met the Muchalaht Indians described the poles as totems and were of grotesquely carved faces.

Totem poles served as illustrations the genealogy, memories, and mythical meanings. The higher up on the poles were the most important, and the lower was meant for the least important. It is suggested the phrase "lowest on the totem pole" is what this refers to. Colors were of equal importance, red, yellow, and turquoise, The animals, were the prominent raven, (Creator), eagle, (peace and friendship), along with beaver, bear, wolf, and frog.

Most of the well-known totem poles are in museums or private collections, and most totem poles were carved after the 1860s. In 1884, the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald, enacted a ban on the Potlatch Ceremony, a ceremony required to erect a totem pole with a gift-giving ceremony. Macdonald was responsible for the genocide of the first nations by starving them to get rid of them and onto reservations. He intended to make them insignificant. It was also on orders of the missionaries who considered the totem poles as idols and so ordered the destruction and burning of the totem poles. A huge loss of the first nation's culture. Fortunately today, there is a renewed interest in the art of carving totem poles. The carvers of today have had to study the totem poles housed in museums to learn the skills necessary. I

Hundreds of the first nations lost their land and starved to death because of dishonest Indian Agents following Macdonald's orders.

The winter months were spent carving these totems using antique tools of shells, rocks, and beaver teeth. It was spiritual carving the totems and almost as if their souls were within the carvings.

Note that as recent as of today, with the BLM movement, many statues and references of John Macdonald have been taken down and eliminated because of his treatment of the First Nation people. Yes, Canada is today because of Macdonald but at a considerable cost to its people and this white nationalist.

Types of Poles

These totem polls served to announce their genealogy, their memories, and their dead. Basically the different poles used were the Welcome Pole, Mortuary Pole, and the Ridicule or Shame Pole. If a debt was unpaid by the household, it would be obvious to any visitor until it was paid. Today, it would be similar to wearing a 'scarlet letter' or a public notice in the news. So, more or less the Totems were used as a billboard to the tribes.

Haida First Nation
Haida First Nation
Haida Totem
Haida Totem
Gitxsan Totem Thunderbird Park, Victoria, British Columbia
Gitxsan Totem Thunderbird Park, Victoria, British Columbia
Haida, Formerly Quen Charlottes Islands
Haida, Formerly Quen Charlottes Islands

Chief Mungo Martin

Chief Mungo Martin, born in 1879 of the Kwakwaka Tribe, was not only a chielf but a famous master carver and artist. He carved his first totem pole in Alert Bay in 1900 called "Raven of the Sea." In 1952 he was commissioned by the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria to create works, and a 160-foot was raised in 1956 and stood until 2000. He designed and carved a totem that stands in the Windsor New Park as a gift from Canada to the queen to commemorate the 100th anniversary to the U.K.This was carved from a 600-year cedar from the Haida Gwaii region.

Another of his carvings is in the Seattle Art Museum of the Raven Man-Eater. There are some totems in Haida Gwaii that are over 100 years old.

Chief Mungo is buried at Alert Bay, British Columbia, with a totem memorial erected at his grave. He died of a stroke in 1962.

Chief Mungo Martin
Chief Mungo Martin
Chief Mungo's Grave Totem Pole
Chief Mungo's Grave Totem Pole
Raven of the Sea by Chief Mungo Martin
Raven of the Sea by Chief Mungo Martin

Comments

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    • surovi99 profile image

      Rosina S Khan 

      11 months ago

      Fran, a new article, Part-22 of my story series, "Keily, the Bookworm" has been published. Please read it and leave your valuable feedback in the comments section. Here is the link:

      https://letterpile.com/serializations/Keily-the-Bo...

    • powers41 profile imageAUTHOR

      fran rooks 

      11 months ago from Toledo, Ohio

      Thank you for reading and your comments. I am glad there is renewed interest in the culture and craft of carving totem poles. Thanks again for reading.

    • surovi99 profile image

      Rosina S Khan 

      11 months ago

      It is interesting to note that the Haidas, the dominant culture among the First Nations in Canada's Pacific Islands carved out totem poles from trees, which served them as billboards. It is sad that In 1884, the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald abolished totem poles. Naturally this resulted in a huge loss of the first nation's culture. It is fortunate that today, there is a renewed interest in the art of carving totem poles. Great article, Fran.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      11 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting and well-researched article. I had not heard of the totem pole that was given to the Queen before.

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