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
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.
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.