Totem Poles and Totem Pole Carvers

John Joseph/ Totem Pole Carver
Chad joe / Totem Pole Carver

Don Yeomans
Norman Tait

Great film on carving the totem pole with Bill Reid

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Artist: Don Yeomans


Title: Talking Stick

These images represent a commissioned sculpture by Haida/Metis carver Don Yeomans. The Haida people come from Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, located about 150 km. West of the Northern British Columbia coast.

The sculpture looks much like a totem pole, and measures about 22' high, with a diameter of about 18". This sculpture pictured is a commissioned site-specific piece, intended for an interior placement. Though the piece looks like a totem pole, it is actually a very large-scale talking stick. A talking stick is also known as a Speaker's Staff. The talking stick or Speaker's Staff is held by the speaker, the speaker would stand by the chief and relay the message of the chief to those assembled.

The large scale talking stick pictured, carved by Don Yeomans, is modeled after the talking stick held by the Chieftain figure in 'The Spirit of Haida Gwaii' by the late Haida artist, Bill Reid. The 'Spirit of Haida Gwaii' is one of two bronze casts, measuring about 20' long or 6 m. The 'Spirit of Haida Gwaii' features a large canoe filled with characters central to Haida mythology. One bronze cast is finished with a green patina and is in the collection at the Vancouver Airport Authority, known as 'The Jade Canoe'. The canoe may be viewed in International Departures at the Vancouver International Airport. The other cast is finished with a black patina, and was installed in the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. in 1991, and is known as 'The Black Canoe'. The plaster/wood original from which the hollow bronze was cast is on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Ontario. 'The Spirit of Haida Gwaii' may also be viewed in a number of publications available for sale at Black Tusk Gallery, or sourced through your local library.

One publication sourced here is titled 'The Black Canoe', text by Robert Bringhurst and photographs by Ulli Steltzer, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, 1991.

The talking stick held by the Chieftain figure in 'The Spirit of Haida Gwaii' is modeled after an actual talking stick found in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian talking stick measures 82 cm or 32". We understand the talking stick in question is currently in storage at the Smithsonian. The talking stick was purchased by a collector at Massett in 1883. Massett is an ancient village on the North End of Haida Gwaii. The Smithsonian Institution talking stick thought to be have been owned by Xana, from the Masset area of the late 19th century. There are no records to determine the theory that this is Xana's talking stick, though Xana's memorial totem pole matches exactly the figures seen on the upper part of talking stick in the collection at the Smithsonian Institution. It is these upper figures which are featured in the talking stick held by the chieftain figure in 'The Spirit of Haida Gwaii' by Bill Reid, and the same figures featured in this commissioned talking stick, by Don Yeomans.

The talking stick is said to tell of the story of creation, among the Haida people. "The details of the featured figures in the talking stick are the Raven with human hands, and the Ttsaamuus or Snag in the form of a Seabear (Grizzly with finned arms and a killer whale's tail) The young Raven is emerging from the Snag's mouth" pg. 74, Bringhurst/Steltzer, 1991.

The remainder of the pole is expected to be finished in the next six weeks, and we hope to post additional photographs representing the progress. Additionally, much is to be said about the symbolism of the figures. Please check back.


Totem pole

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A Gitxsan pole (left) and Kwakwaka'wakw pole (right) at Thunderbird Park in Victoria, British Columbia.

Totem poles are monumental sculptures carved from large trees, usually cedar, but mostly Western Red Cedar, by cultures of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. The word "totem" is derived from the Ojibwe word odoodem, "his kinship group"

Being made of cedar, which decays eventually in the rainforest environment of the Northwest Coast, few examples of poles carved before 1900 exist. Noteworthy examples include those at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver, dating as far back as 1880. And, while 18th century accounts of European explorers along the coast indicate that poles certainly existed prior to 1800, they were smaller and few in number. In all likelihood, the freestanding poles seen by the first European explorers were preceded by a long history of monumental carving, particularly interior house posts. Eddie Malin (1986) has proposed a theory of totem pole development which describes totem poles as progressing from house posts, funerary containers, and memorial markers into symbols of clan and family wealth and prestige. He argues that pole construction was centered around the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands, from whence it spread outward to the Tsimshian and Tlingit and then down the coast to the tribes of British Columbia and northern Washington. This is supported by the photographic history of the Northwest Coast and the deeper sophistication of Haida poles. The regional stylistic differences between poles would then be due not to a change in style over time, but instead to application of existing regional artistic styles to a new medium. Early-20th-century theories, such as those of the anthropologist Marius Barbeau who considered the poles an entirely post-contact phenomenon made possible by the introduction of metal tools, were treated with skepticism at the time and are now discredited.

Totem poles in front of houses in Alert Bay, British Columbia in the 1900s.

The disruptions following American and European trade and settlement first led to a flowering and then to a decline in the cultures and totem pole carving. The widespread importation of iron and steel tools from Britain, the United States and China led to much more rapid and accurate production of carved wooden goods, including poles. It is not certain whether iron tools were actually introduced by traders, or whether iron tools were already produced aboriginally from drift iron recovered from shipwrecks; nevertheless the presence of trading vessels and exploration ships simplified the acquisition of iron tools whose use greatly enhanced totem pole construction. The marine fur trade gave rise to a tremendous accumulation of wealth among the coastal peoples, and much of this wealth was spent and distributed in lavish potlatches frequently associated with the construction and erection of totem poles. Poles were commissioned by many wealthy leaders to represent their social status and the importance of their families and clans. Christian missionaries reviled the totem pole as an object of heathen worship and urged converts to cease production and destroy existing poles.

Totem pole construction underwent a dramatic decline at the end of the 19th century due to American and Canadian policies and practices of acculturation and assimilation. In the mid-twentieth century a combination of cultural, linguistic, and artistic revival along with intense scholarly scrutiny and the continuing fascination and support of an educated and empathetic public led to a renewal and extension of this moribund artistic tradition. Freshly-carved totem poles are being erected up and down the coast. Related artistic production is pouring forth in many new and traditional media, ranging from tourist trinkets to masterful works in wood, stone, blown and etched glass, and many other traditional and non-traditional media.

Today a number of successful native artists carve totem poles on commission, usually taking the opportunity to educate apprentices in the demanding art of traditional carving and its concomitant joinery. Such modern poles are almost always executed in traditional styles, although some artists have felt free to include modern subject matter or use nontraditional styles in their execution. The commission for a modern pole ranges in the tens of thousands of dollars; the time spent carving after initial designs are completed usually lasts about a year, so the commission essentially functions as the artist's primary means of income during the period.Totem poles take about 6–12 months to complete.


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[edit] Meaning and purpose

From left to right, the One-Legged Fisherman pole, the Raven pole, and the Killer Whale pole in Wrangell, Alaska.

The meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures which make them. Totem poles may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. Some poles are erected to celebrate cultural beliefs, but others are intended mostly as artistic presentations. Certain types of totem poles are part of mortuary structures incorporating grave boxes with carved supporting poles, or recessed backs in which grave boxes were placed. Poles are also carved to illustrate stories, to commemorate historic persons, to represent shamanic powers, and to provide objects of public ridicule. "Some of the figures on the poles constitute symbolic reminders of quarrels, murders, debts, and other unpleasant occurrences about which the Indians prefer to remain silent... The most widely known tales, like those of the exploits of Raven and of Kats who married the bear woman, are familiar to almost every native of the area. Carvings which symbolize these tales are sufficiently conventionalized to be readily recognizable even by persons whose lineage did not recount them as their own legendary history." (Reed 2003). House front poles were meant to show the success of the families.

Totem poles were never objects of worship. The association with "idol worship" was an idea from local Christian missionaries, who would have seen their association with Shamanism as being an occult practice. The same assumption was made by very early European explorers, but later explorers such as Jean-François de La Pérouse noted that totem poles were never treated reverently; they seemed only occasionally to generate allusions or illustrate stories and were usually left to rot in place when people abandoned a village.

Vertical order of images is widely believed to be a significant representation of importance. This idea is so pervasive that it has entered into common parlance with the phrase "low man on the totem pole." This phrase is indicative of the most common belief of ordering importance, that the higher figures on the pole are more important or prestigious. A counterargument frequently heard is that figures are arranged in a "reverse hierarchy" style, with the most important representations being on the bottom, and the least important being on top. Actually there have never been any restrictions on vertical order, many poles have significant figures on the top, others on the bottom, and some in the middle. Other poles have no vertical arrangement at all, consisting of a lone figure atop an undecorated column.

[edit] Shame poles

Poles used for public ridicule are usually called "shame poles", and were erected to shame individuals or groups for unpaid debts. Shame poles are today rarely discussed, and their meanings have in many places been forgotten. However, they formed an important subset of poles carved throughout the 19th century.

One famous shame pole is the Lincoln Pole in Saxman, Alaska; it was apparently created to shame the U.S. government into repaying the Tlingit people for the value of slaves which were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation[citation needed]. Other explanations for it have arisen as the original reason was forgotten or suppressed, however this meaning is still clearly recounted by a number of Tlingit elders today.

Another example of the shame pole is the Three Frogs Pole in Wrangell, Alaska. This pole was erected by Chief Shakes to shame the Kiks.ádi clan into repaying a debt incurred by three of their slaves who impregnated some young women in Shakes's clan. When the Kiks.ádi leaders refused to pay support for the illegitimate children Shakes had the pole commissioned to represent the three slaves as frogs, the frog being the primary crest of the Kiks.ádi clan. This debt was never repaid, and thus the pole still stands next to the Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell. This particular pole's unique crossbar shape has become popularly associated with the town of Wrangell. It was thus used, without recognizing the meaning of the pole, as part of the title design of the Wrangell Sentinel newspaper, where it is still seen today.

A shame pole was erected in Cordova, Alaska on March 24, 2007. It includes the inverted and distorted face of Exxon ex-CEO Lee Raymond, representing the unpaid debt that courts determined Exxon owes for having caused the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska. See the Anchorage Daily News article[dead link] on the pole's unveiling

[edit] Construction and maintenance

Incomplete Haida pole in Skidegate, British Columbia.

Erection of a totem pole is almost never done using modern methods, even for poles installed in modern settings on the outside of public and private buildings. Instead the traditional ceremony and process of erection is still followed scrupulously by most artists, in that a great wooden scaffold is built and hundreds of strong men haul the pole upright into its footing while others steady the pole from side ropes and brace it with cross beams. Once the pole is erected a potlatch is typically held where the carver is formally paid and other traditional activities are conducted. The carver will usually, once the pole is freestanding, perform a celebratory and propitiatory dance next to the pole while wielding the tools used to carve it. Also, the base of the pole is burnt before erection to provide a sort of rot resistance.

Dancing at a pole-raising celebration in Klawock, Alaska.

Totem poles are typically not well maintained after their erection. Traditionally once the wood rots so badly that it begins to lean and pose a threat to passersby, the pole is either destroyed or pushed over and removed. Older poles typically fall over during the winter storms that batter the coast. A totem pole rarely lasts over 100 years. A collapsed pole may be replaced by a new one carved more or less the same as the original, with the same subject matter, but this requires a new payment and potlatch and is thus not always done. The beliefs behind the lack of maintenance vary among individuals, but generally it is believed that the deterioration of the pole is representative of natural processes of decay and death that occur with all living things, and attempts to prevent this are seen as somehow denying or ignoring the nature of the world.

This has not, however, prevented many people from occasionally renewing the paint on poles or performing further restorations, mostly because the expense of a new pole is beyond feasibility for the owner. Also, owners of poles who are not familiar with cultural traditions may see upkeep as a necessary investment for property, and ignore the philosophical implications.

[edit] Property

Each culture typically has complex rules and customs regarding the designs which are represented on poles. The designs themselves are generally considered the property of a particular clan or family group, and this ownership may not be transferred to the owner of a pole (See also Crest (heraldry)). As such, pictures, paintings, and other copies of the designs may be an infringement of possessory rights of a certain family or cultural group. Thus it is important that the ownership of the artistic designs represented on a pole are respected as private property to the same extent that the pole itself is property. Public display and sale of pictures and other representations of totem pole designs should be cleared with both the owners of the pole and the cultural group or tribal government associated with the designs on the pole.

However totem poles in general are not the exclusive cultural property of a single culture, so the designs are not easily protected. The appropriation by art and tourist trinket worlds of Northwest Coast American culture has resulted in, among other things, an inundation of cheap imitations of totem poles executed with little or no knowledge of the complex stylistic conventions demanded by Northwest Coast art. These include imitation styles made by other First Nations and Native American peoples in the various parts of Canada and the American Southwest. This proliferation of "totem junk" has diluted the public interest and respect for the artistic skill and deep cultural knowledge required to produce a pole.

In the early 1990s, the Haisla First Nation of the Pacific Northwest began a lengthy struggle to repatriate a sacred totem from Sweden's Museum of Ethnography[1]. Their successful efforts were documented in a NFB documentary by Gil Cardinal, Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole.


Tlingit totem pole in Ketchikan, Alaska, circa 1901.


The K'alyaan Totem Pole of the Tlingit Kiks.ádi Clan, erected at Sitka National Historical Park to commemorate the lives lost in the 1804 Battle of Sitka.


A totem pole in Totem Park, Victoria, British Columbia.


From Totem Park, Victoria, British Columbia.


From Saxman Totem Park, Ketchikan, Alaska


From Saxman Totem Park, Ketchikan, Alaska


From Brockton Point, Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia


Totem poles in front of homes in Alert Bay, British Columbia in the 1900s


A totem in downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado.

[edit] Totem poles of note

Victoria's "World's Tallest Totem Pole."

The title of "The World's Largest Totem Pole" is or has been claimed by several towns along the coast:

There are disputes over which is genuinely the tallest, depending on constraints such as construction from a single log or the affiliation of the carver. Competition for making the tallest pole is still prevalent, although it is becoming more difficult to procure trees of such heights.

The thickest totem pole ever carved to date is in Duncan, British Columbia, carved by Richard Hunt in 1988, and measures over 6 ft (1.8 m) in diameter. It is carved in the Kwakwaka'wakw style, and represents Cedar Man transforming into his human form.

Standing a total of 173 feet (53 m) tall, the world's tallest totem pole is composed of two pieces of 168 and 5 feet (51 and 1.5 m). This one is in Alert Bay, British Columbia.

McKinleyville, California—World's Tallest Totem Pole weighs 57,000 pounds (26 t), the base weighs 214,000 pounds (97 t) and the pole stands 160 feet (49 m) high. It was carved from a 500-year old redwood tree from Pacific Lumber Company. It is located in the parking lot to the left and slightly behind Safeway on Central Avenue not far from the Arcata-Eureka Airport (in McKinleyville). Built out of the largest tree ever hauled across a California highway, the totem pole was carved to commemorate the grand opening of the Mckinleyville Shopping Center. Designed in 1962 by Ernest Pierson of Pierson’s Building Center in Eureka, he and a friend carved the monster tree in the parking lot of the center. Pierson called his totem a potlatch or celebration pole to celebrate the opening of the McKinleyville Shopping Center.


see a great archival clip of the artist Bill Reid retrieving  totem poles for the Vancouver Anthropology museam

Totem Pole Topics

Participate in The Far-Flung Totem Project

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What Do Totem Poles Mean?

    Carved from mature cedar trees by the Native people of the Northwest Pacific coast (British Columbia, Canada and southern Alaska, USA), full size totem poles are outgrowths of the region's aboriginal art forms. Originally an important part of the Potlatch ceremony, a feast with deep meaning to coastal First Nations, totem poles were once carved and raised to represent a family-clan, its kinship system, its dignity, its accomplishments, it prestige, its adventures, its stories, its rights and prerogatives. A totem pole served, in essence, as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry.

    In times past, a totem was raised for several reasons:

    • in honor of a deceased elder who meant a great deal to the band

    • to show the (great) number of names and rights a person had acquired over their lifetime

    • to record an encounter with a supernatural being

    • to symbolize the generosity of a person who sponsored a Potlatch ceremony.

    Today, totem poles are carved for both Natives and non-Natives. They have come to represent Northwest Pacific Coast Native tradition and pride.

    To grasp the symbolism hidden within a totem pole try this mental exercise: envisage the Great Seal of the United States or the Coat of Arms (the Armorial Bearing) of Canada. (Look them up on the internet if you need to.) These national emblems are roughly equivalent to the meaning bound up in a totem pole. The Great Seal with its Eagle, shield and arrows features symbols, assigned a certain meaning, and representing qualities the United States chooses to identify with. In the same way, the Coat of Arms of Canada features a lion and unicorn, maple leaves, fleur de lis and a motto, that sums up its ideal national identity. As for totem poles, they once performed much the same function for Native bands. A big Native family grouping, not just a mother, father, sister, brother, but a whole Clan of relatives, who were related by blood, by experience, by war exploits, and by adoption identified very strongly with the crests and figures carved on their totem pole.

    In general, totem poles (like Coats of Arms and Great Seals) mean: "This is who we are; these carvings symbolically show what we stand for." Additionally, Natives felt they had special rights to claim a link to the super-human beings they depicted on their poles. These special links included: being "descended from ...." or having recently "encountered ..." or having received "a gift from ...".

    Some poles embody one-of-a-kind stories or unusual symbols. These stories or symbols are known in their entirety only to the pole's owner and the carver of the totem pole. If the pole's owner or carvers gave an account to a relative, granted interviews to academics, or left a written record, these unusual meanings are known. If not, hidden or special meanings are lost over time.

    The secret to uncovering the meaning behind a totem figure, and the symbolism behind emblematic crests such as Bear, Wolf, Half-man, Sea Serpent, Glass Nose, Hawk, Red Snapper, or Wild Woman is to see the figures, sort them out, learn to identify them through photographs, and discover the myriads of stories that have been revealed and recorded.

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        Fake Totem Poles Versus Real Ones

    Totem poles made by Northwest Pacific Coast First Nation's carvers for their own people portray the owner's deeply meaningful symbols and family crests. However, Northwest Pacific Coast First Nation's carvers also construct totem poles for non-Native people -- technically not part of the old totem tradition. This practise has evolved, however, to become an important part of the modern tradition and is legitimate. Since authentic full size totem poles today, cost in the region of $25 000 to $60 000 each, outsiders usually commission them to commemorate a great event or a great "coming of age," to symbolize a pact between nations, or to illustrate some sort of bond between Native people and the company or government entity who commissions the pole.

    To be authentic, a totem pole needs to be "sanctioned." That means that it must pass certain tests. First, it must be made by a trained Northwest Pacific Coast native person, or in rare cases, a non-Native apprentice who is approved by a Northwest Pacific Coast Band from coastal British Columbia or Alaska. Secondly, it must be raised (and blessed) by Northwest Coast natives or elders who are part of the totem pole tradition. Chain saw artists, non-Native imitators, or (non-apprenticed) Natives from bands far away from the Northwest Pacific Coast do claim to produce "totem poles". But under the rules of the Northwest Pacific Coast native totemic tradition, they are fakes.

    Small argillite or wooden totem poles, made for the tourist trade, are "real," under the following conditions:

    • they are miniature prototypes of poles once sanctioned, but for some reason, never built

    • they are authentic copies of poles that once stood

    • they are miniature copies of poles still standing

    • they are assembled under the rules of protocol still practised today.

    A great number of the miniature totem poles found in souvenir stores fall into the last catagory. However, they are not "authentic" if an outsider just "made them up."

    Once a person learns about totem poles, it is easy to spot fakes, because they often break the rules of totem pole assembly-protocol. Fake totem poles are rather like a bad translation of your language if the translator is not familiar with the nuances of words. The translation, like the fake, looks right, but it sounds strange to someone who knows better. (A foreign translation I once saw on English Etiquette contained a handy chapter entitled "For to Visit a Sick.") Once a person has been exposed to good examples of real totem poles and has viewed photographs of the best ones, fake totem poles become obvious.

    MAKE BELIEVE, MAGIC "TOTEMS:" Recently, the word "totem" has come into use as part of the elaborate "Dungeons and Dragons" game playing stategy. Players give and receive "totems," a talisman-like magical-charm that is said to empower its users with certain powers and attributes. These include totems named "Parrot," "Jaquar," "Tiger," "King Arthur," etc. Some New Age artists and jewellers also employ the "totem" as a image for various qualities they imbue into the object. Confusion arises if these groups claim their artificial "totem" constructs are part of the "ancient" First People's practise of building totem poles. These types of talismen-totems are/were not part of any Pacific Northwest Coast First Nations' traditions. Totem poles are emblems, not talismen. The difference is significant.

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        How To Make a Totem Pole Come Alive

    Groups of faces and figures piled one on top of the next, woven into patterns with repeating shapes combine along the height of a totem pole to produce a mystical portrayal of something wondrous. Though it is technically an oversimplification to say that Bear means "dignified self-sacrifice" or Wolf means "powerful healing" or Sea Serpent (Siskiutl) means "bravery in war" these interpretations contain a kernal of meaning within them. However, it is in knowing the entire First People's story behind each figure that totem poles really come alive.

    Northwest Pacific Coast Native stories involve the easy transformation of animals into humans or vice versa, or the transformation of supernatural beings into humans.They involve whole villages of Salmon or Whale people who live happily in underwater cities; powerful beings who live deep within whirlpools in the ocean, smelt copper, and periodically change into Frogs; wild creatures who steal children, try to eat them, are caught, burned and transformed into Mosquitos; giant Thunderbirds who swoop down from the sky and snatch up giant Whales to eat for dinner; Wolves who, at night, change into bony, yet attractive Ghost People, and Wolves who grow tired of hunting in packs on the land and change into hunting packs of Killer Whales.

    The excitement of these stories comes because these events really happened in a time not so long ago, (oh yes, they did!) and still continue to happen for those whose eyes are opened by stories.Once the First Nation's story has been told, and the figure has been identified, why, totem poles come to life.

    These and many, many other interesting totem stories are told in the book: Totem Poles.

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        Where to Visit Totem Poles and See Record-Breaking Poles in British Columbia and Alaska

    Numerous totem poles continue to stand tall, in various locations, sometimes singly and sometimes in clusters all along the Northwest Pacific Coast from Seattle, Washington, along the coastal regions of British Columbia, Canada up to southern Alaska. They are located in city squares, outdoors along highways, tucked away in Native reserves (reservations,) clustered in heritage sites, or preserved in various museums. (All are specifically identified in the book "Totem Poles.") Many are located in cities: Seattle WA, Vancouver BC, Victoria BC, Prince Rupert BC, and Ketchican AK, but visitors must know on which street to look. Others are found by adventuring into the outback and arranging a camera safari to find them. A map and written directions in the book pinpoints these locations.

    Record setting totem poles attract everyone's attention: the world's tallest presently points skyward in Victoria BC, and the world's oldest, original (indoor) collection is being cared for in Ketichikan AK. Other record breaking poles include the worlds thickest totem pole, in Duncan, BC and the world's second tallest pole in Alert Bay, BC. The world's most viewed totem poles, about 8 million visits a year, (Vancouver Parks Department figures) are in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

    Eco-tourists, the new wave of specialty travellers now exploring the byways of North America, love to discover breath-taking scenery and to appreciate the First People who inhabit an area. They and all others with a spirit of adventure find this guidebook an invaluable way to plan camera safaris to all sorts of totem poles: accessible, remote and semi-remote. The magic of these carved tree trunks is undiminished by time, particularly at the now declared UN World Heritage site, a haunting Haida village of decaying totems, the oldest outdoor collection, abandoned about 1835 and now accessible by water on Anthony Island, Ninstints, Queen Charlotte Islands, BC.

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        "Low Man on the Totem Pole"

    Such a common expression, and so incorrect .... one wonders how it persists. At first glance it might appear that the lowest figure on a totem pole, has the weight of an entire menagerie on top, and obviously lacks status. Go surfing the Internet to any number of academic sites and see the number of acamedians who whistfully refer to themselves as "low man on the totem pole." Interestingly enough, the low end of the totem pole is very important. Totem poles are carved, not by one carver, but by a chief carver and a number of apprentices. The chief carver is well aware that the viewers of a finished upright pole, range in size from 3 feet (children) to about 7 feet (basketball players.) So, to be certain the totem looks professional and well-executed, the chief carver personally carves the bottom ten feet of the pole and allows the inexperienced apprentices to carve the higher regions. The most intricate and best carved figures are usually placed on the bottom end with the story thinning out towards the top. Many poles (but certainly not all of them!) are topped off with Thunderbird, sort of a generic capper figure, something like a Christmas star, who often has far less meaning than all the carefully thought out symbolic creatures carved into the lower regions. If anything, the lower figures on a totem pole are slightly more important.

    These and many, many other interesting facts are explored in the book: Totem Poles.

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        Myths and Falsehoods About Totem Poles

    There are a number of myths about totem poles and the rich traditions that surround them.

            The following statements are untrue; (true statements in brackets)
  • totems were once worshipped (Never, ever. They are emblems, not icons.)

  • totems are/were used as talismen (Never, ever.)

  • Northwest Pacific Coast shamans used totem poles to ward off evil spirits (Never, ever.)

  • a slave was once buried at the base of a totem (Totems have been dug up to verify this, it is not true!)

  • ancient, wierd totemic traditions were once in place (Totem pole practises are quite logical and have evolved mostly over the last 200 years since metal tools made totem making easier. Claims of bizarre, magical "totemism" practises are fabricated fiction.)

  • totem pole building today is a vanishing legacy (Today, authentic native totem pole carving thrives in British Columbia and southern Alaska; however, it is true that for about 40 years between 1910 and 1950 only a few true totem poles were built and raised.)

  • decaying totem poles are thousands of years old (In reality, most totem poles, though made of decay resistant cedar, fall over in about 100 years; the oldest ones in Ninstints, BC date from about 1835. Within the west coast First Nations' totem tradition, duplicates of decaying totem poles are made and raised by the decendants of the family who own them.)

  • the totem poles in the popular viewing area in Stanley Park, Vancouver BC, are fake (They are real, very valuable, and if they have been replaced, are authorized replacements of the original poles.)

  • painted poles are fakes (Some poles are painted, some are not. The choice is the carvers' to make.)

  • unpainted poles are fakes (Ditto, to the above statement.)

  • totem poles are solemn and always very serious (Actually, there are several jokes woven into totem poles such as figures "accidentally" carved upsidedown, or a little figures winking, grinning and peeking out of Bear's ear or out of Whale's blowhole. Tricks have occasionally been played on the pole's sponsor. If the person paying for the pole annoys the carvers too much, he might be portrayed on the pole, - a little too embarrasingly naked. A little touch of carved-in amusement, here and there, is a valid part of the tradition.)

  • certain totem poles, with a rectangular box on the top, once held the remains of a dead chief (This is a commonly repeated mantra and in fact, the type of pole with a flat board on top is called a Mortuary Pole. But there has never been a documented case where a human corpse was actually placed in one.)

  • no other aboriginal people make real totem poles (New Zealand's Maori people construct a form of totem to commemorate their ancestors and the Ainu people from Hakkaido in northern Japan build totem pole-like clusters of tree trunks as "playgrounds" for their gods. "Is there any relation between these people and the Natives of the Northwest Pacific Coast?" is the more interesting, unanswered question.)

            Experience shows that the following statements seem to contain a modicum of truth:


  • It seems to be bad luck to carve a full size duplicate of a totem pole without permission from the family of the people who own the original pole. At the least, it shows bad manners.

  • It seems to be bad luck for strangers to replace an old totem pole with a new one or to remove an old totem pole unless they have permission to do so. At the least, it shows bad manners.

  • It seems to be bad luck to claim to be a totem-pole-carver unless completing a apprenticeship to a Northwest Pacific Coast Native who follows the traditions. At the least, it shows bad manners.

  • It seems to be bad luck to steal a totem pole. At the least, it is illegal.

  • It seems to be bad luck to kick a totem pole. At the least, it shows bad manners.


  • It seems to be good luck to keep a totem pole (a 3 foot high one) aboard a submarine in war.

  • It seems to be good luck to officially borrow a totem pole and later return it. (For example: In 1970, Japan "borrowed" totems for their Expo World Exposition, and then returned them. Today, the people responsible for that exercise administer a large trust fund, recently opened a major Japanese Zen Garden on the roof Museum of Civilization in Ottawa-Hull Canada, and participate in other diplomatic initiatives.)

    These and many, many other interesting facts are explored in the book: Totem Poles.

    |Totem Pole Topics| Bottom of the Page| How To ORDER the book

        Where To Get or See an Authentic Northwest Totem Pole

    TO COMMISSION ONE: Those who have about $25 000 to $60 000 to spare will, of course, appreciate the information on the great totem pole carvers today, where they may be found and how to have your own pole carved. Others will have to be content with foot-high miniatures for sale in art galleries and craft stores.

    TO BUY AN AUTHENTIC MINIATURE REPLICA: There are hundreds of Arts and Crafts stores and Art Galleries specializing in Native Arts made by Pacific West Coast Native artists. Many of these outlets sell Native-made replicas of totems. For a comprehensive coverage of Galleries, and Native Arts and Crafts outlets in Western Canada see the book "Native Sites in Western Canada".

    TO VIEW A REAL TOTEM POLE: People from many parts parts of the world might be surprised to realize that there was a very significant "harvesting" of totem poles, sometimes described as a "feeding frenzy," that went on from about the years 1880 to about 1935. Anthropologists, ethnologists and various collectors from Germany, France, Great Britian, Australia, the United States, eastern Canada and many parts of the world combed the Northwest Pacific Coast for all manner of Native articles and artifacts.Totem poles were chopped down (mostly with permission) by the hundreds, and shipped, via the "new" railroads, all over the world. Collectors reportedly received $11 an inch, back in 1910, a princely sum.

    So if you live in Australia, Germany, Sweden, or Great Britain, there may well be a museum near you chock full of old, authentic, invaluable totem poles, just begging to tell their stories. There are also large collections throughout America and at the Smithsonian as well as artifact collections in Seattle WA, Portland OR, and elsewhere. In eastern Canada, the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa-Hull has amassed an outstanding collection of totem poles. Phone around and find out. You might be astounded.

    Let us know if you found authentic examples in a museum near you. At one point in the 20th century, around 1945, there were said to be more totem poles aging in museums around the world, than there were (remaining) in British Columbia and Alaska combined!

    In Western Canada, Vancouver BC, there is a good collection at the the Museum of Anthropology and on Vancouver Island the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria BC also has a comprehensive collection. Other western North American totem sites are listed in the section entitled |Where to Visit Totem Poles and See Record-Breaking Poles|

    These and many, many other interesting facts are explored in the book: Totem Poles.

    |Totem Pole Topics|Bottom of the Page|How To ORDER the book



    The Far-Flung Totem Project

    Because there was such a widespread harvesting of totem poles from the Northwest Pacific Coast and Alaska between about 1880 and 1930, even today, there are poor records on exactly where they came to rest. It is said that hundreds went to Germany and many of these disappeared about 1945. It is said that many were burned in a serious fire in Stockholm. It is known that excellent totem poles were commissioned and given to the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and to the nation of France as gifts. It is known that many were shipped to the Smithsonian Institute (Museum of the American Indian has many), and universities throughout the United States and as far away as Australia.

    Where are the Poles Today?

    If you know about Alaskan or Northwest Pacific Coast totem poles in a museum or commissioned by a company and at a location near you, but far away from Alaska and British Columbia, please let us know. We want to find out where they are. Recently, a journalist from Israel visited a Kwakiutl band on Vancouver Island to find out about a 3 foot totem pole, recently donated to the British Museum in London, that had been a mascot on a submarine called "Totem" in WWII. It was authentic; he did find the carver, now almost 100 years old. If you know of totem poles or stories of totem poles, please take the time to share them.

    We will add these findings to this site.

    E-mail Us: Where are the Far-Flung Totem Poles? We know about totem poles throughout British Columbia and Alaska. But other totems' locations are of great interest. Know of some?
    We are particularly seeking information on the 3 foot totem pole used as a mascot for the submarine Totem..


    |Totem Pole Topics| Bottom of the Page| How To ORDER the book|


        A Sampling of Common Totem Figures (Lots of defining close-up photos and condensed stories in the book: Totem Poles)



    Grand lord of the Sky Realm; frightens humans who disturb him; needs homage; busy with his own wars carried out beyond human perception; eats Whales; likes to come to human's dance ceremonies


    Thunderbird's dull-witted brother; a show off; competitive; strong; will occasionally transport huge longhouse beams for humans


    Aristocratic lord of the Sky Realm; part of Thunderbird's entourage or live with other lordly Eagles; occasionally transforms into a human dancer


    Transforms regularly into Hawk Woman or Hawk Man; hates Mosquitoes; quite regal; stand-offish but will assist humans


    Powerful, ever-transforming trickster; ever hungry; ever curious; deviant; compulsive; crooked, corrupt and deceptive but somehow likeable; ever politically incorrect


    Ruler of His own Underwater City; lives with noble supernatural beings there; hates Thunderbirds; some turn into Wolves

    Copper Woman

    Ever-interfering, social climbing wife of Komowkwa, the Underwater King of copper smelting; grants wealth to her personal favorites; particular friend of Frog; causes volcanic eruptions disguised as Volcano Woman

    Siskiutl, the Two-headed Sea Serpent

    Can turn enemy warriors into stone with one glance; has been known to swiftly pull huge war canoes to the site of a battle; protects his crestholders from injury during war; has removable crystal eyes; hates Thunderbirds (his enemy)

    Dzunkwa (Tsnoqua)

    Cannibal woman who owns certain valuable treasures that humans like to steal; lives on the Earth Realm; smells awful; collects children but they often get away; dull-witted; cannot be killed


    Can easily transform into a human; must not be insulted/cursed; lumbering, caring figure with a yen to marry good-looking human princesses; has twin children who grow to adulthood in record time; able to make fires with wet sticks (Bear wood)


    Vengeful creature; occasionally murders humans; if provoked digs underground tunnels that cause earthquakes and landslides; constructs fine arrows


    Powerful; generally avoids humans; able to heal human sickness but this healing is costly; fraternizes with Ghosts at night; when in the mood turns into Whale; powerful ones are pure white


    Much misunderstood and underestimated; associated with great wealth; survives volcanic eruptions; must not be insulted; friend of Copper Woman


    Arose from the transformed remains of chopped-up cannibal beings; it continues to love blood

    Note: Wood Carvers often buy this book for the closeup, detailed views of each figure.

    These and many, many other interesting figures are explored in the book: Totem Poles.

    |Totem Pole Topics| Bottom of the Page| How To ORDER the book|

        More Questions About Totem Poles

    How old are the oldest totem poles? ( A better way of asking this would be: How old are the oldest outdoor poles? How old are the oldest poles protected indoors?) How old is the totem-making tradition?

    Why do many Haida totem figures thrust out their tongues?

    Why is the Thunderbird frequently depicted on top of a Whale? Why is Whale head down?

    At the bottom of many totems stands a human-figure holding a baby. Why is it called a Bear?

    What is the relationship between totem pole building and the potlatch ceremony?

    When was the Golden Age of Totem building? Why did totem building cease?

    Is it true that there was a period when totems were burned and chopped down? Why? By who? (You may be surprised at the answers here.)

    What did Native people do, in secret, to keep the tradition alive? Did it work?

    Did any people or groups speak out to save the totem tradition? (You may be surprised at the answers here.)

    How was the tradition revived? Who and when?

    Are there particular totem styles linked to certain bands?

    What skill did visiting British naval sailors teach Haida Native deckhands, that came to be used on totem poles?

    Why does the Beaver figure hold an intact arrow on some totems? a broken arrow on others?

    If I want to see excellent examples of totem poles today, where are they located?

    When a pole tips over or falls down, what does the tradition dictate is the proper next step?

    Is it true that totem poles were once used to keep school furnaces burning? Where?

    Have there ever been rivalries among Native people over the height of their totems? over the figures carved on poles? How about murders?

    In pre-contact times, were teepees and totem poles found together?

    Why do so many bands claim to have the world's tallest totem? Where is the Guiness Book of Record tallest totem? How tall is it?

    Where is the world's thickest totem?

    What do modern Native people think about new methods of casting totems pole copies from fibreglass?

    The answers to these questions are found in the book: Totem Poles.

        Totem Poles: The Book's Table of Contents

  1. The Origin and History of Totem Poles (tells the whole story of when they began, the Golden Age)

  2. Totem Pole Symbols and Ceremonies (tells about the Potlatch; Building, and Raising Poles)

  3. Identifying Totem Figures (shows photos, describes figures, tells condensed stories of figures)

  4. Land of the Totem Poles (tells exactly where to find most of the Totem Poles standing today)

        About Making the Book

    Three years in the making and thousands of miles logged through British Columbia to southern Alaska, this book is chock full of color photos and stories. The elders of several bands graciously answered questions, and gave their specific permission to the author to relate certain stories, some told for the first time in this book. Other stories were condensed and simplified, for quick telling, from the copious volumes of academic writings compiled by early ethnographers and anthropologists who passed through the region beginning 100 to 120 years ago.

    Totem Poles is the second in a series of Altitude guidebooks on Native subjects. The first, "Native Sites in Western Canada", is a guide to everything public and Native-owned or Native-supported in the west, and is also available in German, "Indianer In West-Kanada." Beautiful British Columbia magazine (circulation .25 million) recently published a short Kramer-piece on record-setting totems with a second article due out later in 1997. Ever sensitive to the special place that emerging First Nations hold in the modern world, Kramer was most honoured to receive a ceremonial Eagle Feather from the Native Investment and Trade Association.

    Besides delivering talks, workshops and teaching courses Kramer, past President of the Western Tour Directors Association of Canada, is contracted every year to guide special interest tours either through western Canada or the American Southwest. Current projects include the biography of Richard Krentz, maker of the world's tallest totem pole as well as consultations for various government and financial bodies on the viability of Native-themed tourist attractions.

    |Totem Pole Topics| Top of Page| Bottom of the Page| How To ORDER the book|

    recommended books from Native Online

Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast
by Edward Malin

Our Price: $15.96
You Save: $3.99 (20%)
Usually ships in 2-3 days
Paperback - (July 1994) 195 pages

5 of 5 stars Excellent text for understanding the Coastal Indian Totems, July 7, 2009
Reviewer: A reader from Port Angeles, WA. USA
This book is for anyone who wants to study or research the Coastal Indian Totem Pole. Written in an easy to read yet scientific style it is historically accurate, authoritative and comprehensive. It contains multiple drawings and colored plates illustrating the types of poles, their function and individual details. It is a must for the experienced artist who intends on carving a totem showing carving techniques, tools, pictures, animal subjects with an explaination of the meaning and placement of each. It even tells how to raise a carved totem. Available in paperback it has to be a best buy!


Looking at Totem Poles

 by Hilary Stewart
List Price: $14.95
Our Price: $11.96
You Save: $2.99 (20%)
Availability: This title usually ships within 2-3 days.
Paperback - 191 pages (November 1993)
University of Washington Press; ISBN: 0295972599 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.47 x 9.03 x 6.03 Sales Rank: 79,871

  1. Totem Poles

An Altitude Superguide

by Pat Kramer

112 pages, 153 full color photographs including 15 full page bleeds, 10 archival photographs

Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd

Quick Image: Book Cover

An excellent resource!

5 WAYS TO ORDER: TOTEM POLES by Pat Kramer, a full color guidebook


Totem Pole Workshops or Totem Pole Tours


Hot Links to (Authentic)Totem Pole Photos and Bits of Totem Information
  • Computer Protocol using the Totem Name, Wonderful!

Photo: Oh my! Check out the photo from the book: Totem Poles

and see what Computer communication protocol has transpired!!!


  • Vancouver Island and Victoria, BC, Canada

Story of Cedar: Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria BC


  • World Heritage Site, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, BC) Canada

Photo: Ninstints, World Heritage Site, Queen Charlottes BC, Grizzly Bear Mortuary Pole

Photo: Ninstints, World Heritage Site, Queen Charlottes BC, Mortuary Pole

Photo: Ninstints, World Heritage Site, BC, Group of Totems (new

Photo: Ninstints World Heritage Site,BC, small photo of decaying poles

Photo: Haida Totem Photo Wins Contest


  • Alaska, USA

Info: Story of Alaskan Tlingit totem poles

  • FAR-FLUNG Totems around the World

Photos & Info: Museum of Civilization, Ottawa-Hull, Canada, Grand Hall of Totem Poles

Photo: Authentic Pole commissioned for Aveda Corporation, Minneapolis (link is gone)


  • Books, Films, Videos on Totem Poles

Info, Carving A Totem Pole, A Book by Vicki Jenson

Info: Looking at Totem Poles a Book by Hilary Stewart

Info: Native Sites in Western Canada: A Book by Pat Kramer

5 WAYS TO ORDER: TOTEM POLES by Pat Kramer, a full color guidebook

Info in German: Indianer in West-Kanada




|Totem Pole Topic Selection|

|Meaning of Totems | Fake totems | How to Make a Totem Come Alive | Visit BC and Alaska Totems | "Low Man on the Totem Pole" | Myths and Falsehoods About Totems | Common Totem Figures | Where to Get or See a Totem Pole | |Making the Book| Questions About Totem Poles

5 WAYS TO ORDER: TOTEM POLES by Pat Kramer, a full color guidebook

Workshops or Tours to Totem Poles

carvers who will take orders of poles are:

Gordon Dick



TITLE: Gordon Dick Nuu-chah-nulth Artist


Carves Jewellery & Wood, Functional Art

Artist, Carver, Pole Carver, Jewellery carver, Print Maker

DESCRIPTION: A Nuu-chah-nulth Artist who enjoys making Jewellery and wood carvings. He explores many mediums and creates functional Art.

Cody Mathius 604-988-0684



add your name to the list of carvers


Visit the companio site: Discover the Native Sites in Western Canada


5 WAYS TO ORDER: TOTEM POLES by Pat Kramer, a full color guidebook


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