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A Totem Pole Is a Person in Native North American Culture

Updated on August 19, 2020
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

A descendant of Mohawk Nation and trained in anthropology, Patty has researched and reported on indigenous peoples for over four decades.


You treat a totem pole with respect, just like a person, because in our culture, that's what it is. A pole is just another person that is born into the family, except he is the storyteller. So it should be treated with respect and honour.

— Master Carver Norman Tait, in Hilary Stewart's Looking at Totem Poles, 1993; page 9.

Totem Poles Around the World

Each Pacific Northwest totem pole, a carved cedar pole of power animals and other Native North American characters, is a person who is a storyteller.

The Algonquians of Western Ohio have designated human storytellers who wear a special makeup to mark them as such, but the Pacific Coastal Nations of Canada, America, and the islands in between have their carved cedar poles.

The person that is the totem pole is a storyteller who narrates the founding histories and legends of the Native American Nations and First Nations represented on the pole. The person also tells stories about the owner of the pole and the owner's family and exploits. In order to hear these words, we must learn who each character on the pole is and what is his or her individual backstory.

Totem poles are found across the Pacific Ocean in several countries as well as in the Pacific Northwest, but they have different roles in society.

Carved cedar poles located in Canada.
Carved cedar poles located in Canada. | Source

Traditions and Commercialism

Cartoons filmed in the 1930s - 1970s incorrectly taught American children that beside every tipi in the Western US stood a totem pole, a campfire, and a Native American wearing a stylized chief's war bonnet of a thousand feathers. This notion was inadvertently reinforced by amusement park and campground owners that purchased totem poles for their businesses.

This occurred as the automobile came into great favor and Americans began taking travel vacations across the major highways and to US National Parks promoted by Teddy Roosevelt, boosted with help from WPA work programs offered by Franklin D. Roosevelt during The Great Depression. An small town of concrete tipis with at least one totem pole became a tourist attraction and motel on Route 66 in the 1930s. The Wigwam Restaurant showed up in several spots across Route 40.

Totem poles began to proliferate in jewelry, paintings, toys, keychains, business logos, and elsewhere. Professionally carved models began to appear in front of large office buildings as art installations. Today, hundreds of professionally created totem poles may be found in the UK. The totem pole became a piece of contemporary art, without the meaning assigned to them in the traditional crafting process. This is a little like the difference between the traditional Christmas and commercial Christmas that stand side by side today.

We know that totem poles originated long ago in the Eastern Hemisphere before any appeared in the New World well before AD1700. What nations lived in the Pacific Northwest at least several hundred years ago and perfected carving in what has become the Master Craft of Totem Poles today?

Wigwam Motel #1 - Bardstown KY: Commercialism and Tourism

Teepees and totem poles became symbols to motorists of the 1950s and 1960s who drive across America on vacation on the new highway system.
Teepees and totem poles became symbols to motorists of the 1950s and 1960s who drive across America on vacation on the new highway system. | Source

Oral Tradition

One legend of the oral tradition is that the first "totem pole" was carved in Queen Charlotte Islands/Haida Gwaii after such a pole washed ashore from somewhere in the South Pacific, such as New Zealand and Polynesia. Nations of the Pacific Northwest discovered it and thought to carve their own. This seems to have occurred also in the Dall and Prince of Wales Islands of southeastern Alaska, forming a type of geographical rim of people who began to carve poles.

A Rim of Major Pole Carvings

Queen Charlotte Islands:
Haida Gwaii

get directions

Suspected origin of Pacific Northwest carved poles, based on the oral tradition that a pole from the South Pacific washed on shore and gave the idea.

Alert Bay BC:
Alert Bay, BC, Canada

get directions

Vancouver BC:
Vancouver, BC, Canada

get directions

Juneau AK:
Juneau, AK, USA

get directions

Southern Alaska:
Southern Lake, Kodiak Island, AK 99615, USA

get directions

An installation in Alaska.
An installation in Alaska. | Source


in the Haida language is recognized as the word for the family history pole and transliterates poetically as

"man stands up straight."

Haida Nation

Haida First Nation may be the second largest and most active group of pole carvers historically. The Tsimshian seem to have them beat in that activity, but are less well known. The Kwakiutl are equal to the Haida in cedar pole production and are the people who worked with the founders of the science of anthropology, thereby bringing the knowledge of their carving to the world.

The book titled Out of the Silence highlights these and several other North American Nations equally.

The earliest name heard or seen among the Haida pole carvers as of this writing is that of Sqiltcange (Reference: Professor/Curator Robin K. Wright, Northern Haida Master Carvers ; 2003).

Master carver Albert E. Edenshaw was thought to have carved a huge number of poles, but Dr. Wright discovered that a portion were created actually by Charles Edenshaw, Albert's nephew. Robert Davidson carried on the family tradition, being Charles' great-grandchild. Professor Wright has studied the work of Freda Diesing and Donald Yeomans as well, 21st century descendants, and other 19th - 20th century carvers.

Note that women did not often carve in the traditional native groups, but have done so more frequently in the 20th - 21st centuries. Ellen Neel, a Kwakiutl, was the most prolific and honored female artist in pole carving, although her life was short in the first half of the 20th Century.

Totem poles existing before the 19th Century are literally gone, if they have not been refurbished by Canadian and Alaskan governments and private art programs that preserve native arts. This sad loss happened, because the usual red and yellow cedar woods decayed after approximately 100 years and crumbled or fell to the ground. No petrified poles have been as yet seen to date.

However, in cultural anthropology and archeology, we know that these "totem" or power animal poles have probably been created for several centuries, given the importance of power animals (including humanoids and human spirits) in native religious traditions and creation stores. The word totem was not originally used by the tribal nations that created the carved cedar poles. That word comes from some eastern tribes, commercial sales companies, and New Agers.

As for humans, the Wild Woman and the Wild Man on many poles are figures in actual history that may have been identified as Bigfoot by natives and whites. The Squamish Nation in the Pacific Northwest still observes a tradition in which young men go out into the wilds to live only in nature for 10 years, covering themselves in moss for warmth as their hair also grows long. These Squamish men may also be identified as Bigfoot from time to time and the study of this phenomenon is ongoing.

Totem poles are people. They are storytellers of families entrenched in the oral tradition of history. Few poles were accompanied by the written version of the stories, because of the strict oral tradition and the belief that families would proceed down the generations and remember these stories forever, but some written stories have been found. Modern Era 21st-century poles sometimes include an accompanying planning diagram and written history .

Gyáa'aang in Haida is recognized as the word for the family history pole and transliterates poetically as "man stands up straight." Apparently, Pacific Northwest Indigenous groups do not use a word totem at all in their languages for the power animals depicted on poles and in ethnic legends.

Major Pacific Northwest Nations

The following groups of native peoples have carved and continue to carve poles, but there are other groups that likely have also been involved. Pole carving has extended southward into Oregon. However, the American West and Southwest is home to non-native carvers that may or may not hold with traditions of the original carvers. At least one major carver is in Jerusalem.

  • Bella Bella
  • Bella Coola
  • Coast Salish - Southern British Columbia and Western Washington State
  • Gitxsan
  • Haida
  • Kwakiutl/Kwakwaka'wakw
  • Nisga'a
  • Nootka
  • Tlingit - Alaska
  • Tsimshian

Musical Tribute to Mungo Martin' Carving in Kitsilano

A Selection of Master Carvers

Tommy Josephs - Native Tlingit in Alaska. He has carved most of his life and recently completed a memorial pole to all past, present, and future victims of domestic violence. It stands in Sitka, Alaska, at the Family Justice Center as a community pole. Josephs still makes some of the animals on his poles look half-human, because tribal creation legends tell of creatures able to travel back and forth to shift shapes between the animal and human worlds (similar to Dreamtime).

John Joseph - Squamish of Vancouver, BC Canada. This carver has also carved most of his life, trained by his father, and has totem poles and carved plaques in BC and the USA among private collectors. Mr. Joseph carves cedar doors with traditional animals, along with cedar glass-topped table stands and cedar chests as well.

Ellen Neel (1916 - 1966) - Kwakwaka'wakw and Celt. Alert Bay, Northern Vancouver Island, BC (see map below). Women did not often become carvers, but during the 20th C, some did so. Ms. Neel was a master carver that was able to earn a meager living for herself, husband, and several children in carving souvenir poles for tourists. Famous carvers Chief Charles James (1867 - 1938) and Mungo Martin(1879 - 1962) were older members of her family (grandfather and uncle, respectively). Carving has been an intergenerational tradition in Ms. Neels family and the nations on Vancourver Island. Descendants in this line of carvers include Aubrey Johnson and Stephen Bruce. During the period of time that potlatches and raising totem poles was illegal in Canada, it was the Kwakwaka'wakw People especially that continued have these events in the more isolated region of northern Vancouver Island (up island).

Norman Tait (1941 - ) - Nisga'a Nation, descendant of early master carver Oyai. He was trained in the oral traditions and tells those stories today. Trained by his father and other masters, Tait has carved poles for museums, cities, and the British Royals. He has trained a new generation in Ms. Lucinda Turner. His work is on exhibit at a number of galleries.

Gabriel Bass - Jewish, raised in the Pacific Northwest. This artist was educated in arts, design and cultures in Jerusalem, Israel, Seattle, Massachusetts, and British Columbia. He is Program Director of the Israeli-First Nation Cultural Exchange.

John Williams (1960 - 2010) - Dididaht Nation, Vancouver Island. Partially deaf and working in Seattle as a well known carver, he was told to put down his carving knife by a police officer investigating a local crime. Not hearing the officer, Williams did not respond, and was killed with four gunshots. Seattle paid his family $1.5 Million in damages and the officer quit the force the day after the shooting in August 2010.

Bill Reid (1920 - 1998) - Kwakiutl, Haida and European, related to Chief Charlie James, Ellen Neel's father. Mr. Reid first studied European art and jewelry making such as goldsmithing, until he visited Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) in the mid-1950s. He found bracelets there made by his great uncle, Charles Edenshaw (mentioned above), the head of a lineage of master carvers among the Haida.

After his discovery of his artistic heritage among the Haida, Mr. Reid studied Haida arts, including pole carving. He added his European arts skills to this traditional craft for a new generation that he trained, and championed the Haida People against government land claims. When he died, reports are that the Haida transported him to his mother's childhood village for burial in a canoe that he himself had carved from one cedar log.

Kwakwaka'wakw of North Vancouver Island

Alert Bay, British Columbia:
Alert Bay, BC, Canada

get directions

Victoria BC (for reference):
Victoria, BC, Canada

get directions


Peer-Reviewed Professional Journals and Books

  • 1950. Barbeau, Marius and the National Museum of Canada. Totem poles. In the Bulletin of the National Museum of Canada; Vol 119, No. 30.
  • 1982. Nuytten, Phil. The Totem Carvers: Charlie James, Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin. Vancouver: Panorama Publications.
  • 1992. Robin K. Wright. Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest Coast.
  • 1993. Hilary Stewart, Looking at Totem Poles.
  • 2003. Robin K. Wright, Northern Haida Master Carvers.
  • 2005.Heidi T. Motzkus. The Totems of Haida Gwaii. Phi Kappa Phi Forum.[10,000 years of Haida history discussed.]
  • 2006. Joshua Brockman. Sitka. Smithsonian. (Vol. 37, No. 2)
  • 2008. Leslie Dawn. CROSS-BORDER TRADING: Mungo Martin Carves for the World of Tomorrow. BC Studies; Autumn 2008.
  • 2009. Russell Caskey. Cultures in Collision: Cosmology, Jurisprudence, and Religion in Tlingit Territory. American Indian Quarterly; Spring 2009.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Patty Inglish MS


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      6 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I'd certainly would like to see it! I bet it will look awesome.

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 

      6 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      This is an interesting page on traditional carving. I learned many things and appreciate the well-researched and referenced information. I hope to make one for my garden, although, it will not be traditional.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      8 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Hi billybuc - Washington is beautiful and you must enjoy it immensely. I visit Washington and British Columbia every few years and try to see more of these types of installations each time. I've been researching since high school, but did not discover my Native American heritage until my 30s. My first college classes in this area were lacking, but travel certainly helped fill in missing pieces.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Now you are in my part of the country with a great, informative hub. I grew up learning about the Salish, the customs, the beliefs....attended several post-graduate classes about totem poles, sweat lodges, etc....fascinating stuff and you did a great job on this one.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      8 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      They are being commissioned and placed all over the world as art pieces at this time, so you may see many more in the future!

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      8 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thank you, Patti. I've always felt a sense of reverence towards totem poles. I think I saw one in a museum once. But I never new so much about them.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I found some photos on Flickr of the pole at Ray's Food Place. Impressive size and characters! Thanks again, Rachel!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks for reading, Rachel; I'll have to look up Weed CA and see if pictures are available. It's great fun to learn about additional sites!

    • Rachel Richmond profile image

      Rachel Richmond 

      9 years ago from California

      I appreciate this article. The town of Weed, CA has a totem pole sitting in the middle of a parking lot (the local grocery store) and it needs some work. It's been neglected for awhile. I will never see it the same way again. Thanks for the hub.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      How amazing to be able to see this pole completed - much more to be a member of the carving group! Thanks for telling us all about it, especially for describing the figures on the pole. Sounds beautiful.

    • marshacanada profile image


      9 years ago from Vancouver BC

      Thanks Patty Inglish for another of your excellent Hubs. I was lucky to be a member of Kleewick carvers in Vancouver started by Norman Tait's disciple Robert Barrat. Unfortunately I never met Norman and Lucinda.

      However Vancouver has many pole carvers.

      This week I watched a master carver finishing a pole at the Britania Secondary School. The pole is by Khut Whee Mul Uhk. It is topped by Three Watchmen and has Eagle,moon,Cedar Man,Raven the trickster,Bear holding turtle. It is very beautifully carved in light colored red cedar and will be placed on the roof of Vancouver Healing Lodge 31 West Pender in downtown Vancouver. site:

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Destroying that incredible amount of work is ghastly, ThePelton! Thanks for sharing.

      Thanks for all the comments!

    • ThePelton profile image


      9 years ago from Martinsburg, WV USA

      I heard that a number of totem poles made during the nineteenth century on the west coast of North America were destroyed by Christian missionaries who thought they were idols.

    • ForrestDrake profile image


      9 years ago from Canada&USA

      I spent night in Wigwam Motel, looks great, so you can even pardon the lower comfort :)

    • Support Med. profile image

      Support Med. 

      9 years ago from Michigan

      Must have been awesome to have met the storytellers themselves. Glad some histories were found with some of the totem poles as all will not be able to interpret their stories. v/r

    • TorremochaJ profile image


      9 years ago

      From what I know, most northwest people are brave and strong.

    • profile image


      9 years ago from India

      Too charming ecstatic.

    • elnavann profile image


      9 years ago from South Africa

      I found this hub fascinating and like your in-depth research

    • woodamarc profile image

      Marc Woodard 

      9 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Native storytelling through the carvings is very cool. Great hub!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Hi PG - Master Carver Tait says that this is the long tradition of the pole - a person that is the story teller of the family or community, while the Algonquian in western Ohio and elsewhere have always had human story tellers that wore a specific pattern of face paint to identity them as storytellers. I have met two of them and they are wonderful.

      I just found a group in the Pacific Northweest that, when they allowed their poles to be placed in a historical site, insisted that their stories be written down, placed into a book and filmed as well. A few pole stories are available in print, but not many. Very exciting!

    • Psycho Gamer profile image

      Psycho Gamer 

      9 years ago from Earth

      i so would prefer for those natives to had written their history down and avoid oral history....i am saying this so i could learn more from a totem is a person...huh?

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Thanks for all the comments! The study of the poles is a long one and full information not often published.

    • stars439 profile image


      9 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

      Wonderful hub. God Bless You.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      I am sorry but I can only repeat Pamela's words. She said it all. An absolutely splendid hub.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      9 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This was a wonderful hub about totem poles as I've always been fascinated with them. I love the way they tell a story and how the Indians treated them as a person not just carved piece of wood. Thanks for some great information; I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    • Ken Barton profile image

      Ken Barton 

      9 years ago

      This was a great Hub, I love reading about Totem's. Back when I was doing wood working I entertained the idea of carving one, but only entertained it. lol Being a story teller, I like that totem's tell a family story, that someone figured out how to do that with carvings of images is awesome. I wonder what a totem made today would look like?

    • wheelinallover profile image

      Dennis Thorgesen 

      9 years ago from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S.

      I actually spent the night in a "wigwam" hotel in my youth. The idea was to show the differences between a real "house" and what was manufactured to be one.

      As for totems I have seen many which were carved in the 1900's but neither of the tribes I am part of did this.

      Our contribution to this century are arrowheads and stone knives. Things done by the ancestors are gone now as everything came from nature and returned to nature once they were no longer needed. This is the way of the totems of years gone by. They were made for that time, and it was known that they would bio degrade (definitely not that word) in time.

      I still wonder how many arrowheads people have found which they thought were from an older time that I created as a child.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      9 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Fascinating Patty. How sad that the totem poles of old are not still with us. What a marvelous story they would be able to tell.

    • BizGenGirl profile image


      9 years ago from Lake Stevens

      Wow! What a hub! I'm going to have to come back a few times to make sure that I learned everything. It's so nice to know more about the heritage in my home region =)

    • Phillbert profile image

      Phillip Drayer Duncan 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Wow really great hub! I learned a lot I didn't know, all of which was quite fascinating!

    • profile image

      Daydreamer Too 

      9 years ago

      I'm from England but moved to Atlantic Canada in Jan 2002 and went on to become a fill Canadian citizen. For this I had to study in depth, a history of Canada of, it's history, traditions and its peoples. Until then, I hadn't realised that Canada had so many of its own Native American tribes or, First Nations as they are collectively called. I found this very informative. There is so much we can learn from so many teachers in so many ways, if we are open to it.

      Great hub, very in-depth and informative, thank you.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      9 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      I loved this blog as I love carvings and such. I also appreciate the video you posted about British Columbia and First Nations. Cheers!

      May Wakan Tanka walk with you.


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