74: Totem poles and sculptures

For a long time, most of what the world knew about Native American cultures came from the Hollywood and spaghetti western films, where cowboys and Indians roamed the prairies and deserts, locked in a constant battle against one another. These films were made for entertainment, geared towards non-native audiences, and often made by people with little experience of the real wild west. As such, they weren’t often very historically or culturally accurate in their depiction of, well, many things, but especially Native American culture. For example, one of the stereotypical images that still remains is that of a Native American in a feathered headdress on a horse, placed in a cluster of teepees with a prominent totem pole in the middle. This image is, in reality, a mishmash of aspects from very different indigenous cultures in North America at different points in the continent’s history. In these week’s plog we will be unpicking one part of that image, the totem pole, looking at who actually built them and what they were used for, ranging from symbols of honour and family, to shame and disgrace!

‘Two Brothers’ totem pole made in 2011 by Haida carvers Jaalen Edenshaw and Gwaai Edenshaw.  (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

What are Totem poles?

Despite often being associated with Native Americans in general, totem poles are actually specific to the indigenous groups found in southern Alaska and western Canada and Washington, including the Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Nuu-chah-nulth and Coast Salish peoples. Totem poles are part of an artform from that area known as Northwest Coast art, which includes distinct pictorial styles, colours and techniques.

The totem poles themselves are tall wooden structures, many meters in height, which normally depict different beings like animals, fish, plants, insects or humans, or even supernatural beings. Each pole, carved from the trunk of a giant cedar, often includes multiple creatures which are interlinked stacked on top of one another. They are carved and painted whilst lying down, and when completed, the erection of the pole is often accompanied by a potlatch celebration event. After installation, the totem pole is not usually maintained, and due to the wet and humid climate in the area it eventually decays, surviving only around 60-80 years.

It is thought the tradition of carving totem poles began with the Haida, who started by using them for house posts, mortuary poles or memorial poles. The house posts are either placed within a clan house supporting the roof beam, or outside the front door of prominent community members. The creatures depicted in the totem pole would tell the story of the clan or family who owned them. Many animals are like family crests, either passed down through the generations, gained through marriage or acquired when winning a battle against another family. This includes creatures like wolves, eagles and frogs. The family/clan totem is usually depicted at the top of the totem pole, although exterior house posts may instead have a watchman figure in the top position to watch over the clan or family. The link between family history and totem poles are strong, with the word totem being derived from the Algonquian word odoodem, meaning “kinship group”.

Mortuary poles are the largest types of totem poles, being up to 21m in height, and contain the grave box of an important individual. They often include only a single carving on the top, of the person’s totem crest, although some can contain more elaborate carvings telling of the person’s life. Finally, memorial poles are often erected a year after the passing of someone, both to honour them and to show who has inherited their role within the community. Memorial poles can also be used to remember important events, such as the creation of a peace treaty between rival groups. A more recent example of a memorial pole, built in 2020 in British Columbia, was one created for murdered and missing indigenous women, both to commemorate and honour those lost.

On the far right Chief Skedans mortuary totem pole at Stanley Park in Vancouver (Picture: Wikimedia commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Shame poles and cultural appropriation

The tradition of totem poles eventually spread from the Haida to many more groups, and were erected for a wider range of reasons. Welcome poles were erected to either welcome, or occasionally intimidate, guests on arrival to a community. Shame poles were also created, which were used to ridicule individuals or groups who had done something wrong, often depicting the person on the pole. These were taken down if the wrong was righted. A recent example is that of a pole erected in 2007 in Cordova, Alaska, depicting former CEO of the oil company Exxon, Lee Raymond. Due to the environmental impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the federal court in Anchorage determined that the company owed $5 billion in punitive damages. This debt was never paid however, leading locals to create the shame pole as a reminder to Exxon.

The rules surrounding totems and the creatures they depict are complex, and the structures themselves are often regarded as sacred. There is much frustration then when people who have not been traditionally trained in the custom surrounding totems are seen to create “cheap knock-off” versions which are sold commercially and used in settings such as bars, which are considered insensitive or offensive places to display certain carvings.

In the 19th and early 20th century the carving of totem poles was strongly discouraged, especially by Christian missionaries. This led to many totem poles being removed and placed in museum or personal collections. With this the practice of totem pole carving largely ground to a halt. However, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 strongly promoted native arts and crafts, which created an upsurge in the creation of totem poles once more, and eventually many poles which had been removed, to locations as far away as Sweden, were repatriated.

Shame or ridicule pole with its artist Mike Webber. This pole was carved for Exxon who have not renumerated local communities for damages caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Picture: Charles Wohlforth)


Whilst totem poles remain the cultural tradition of Northwest native groups, another form of indigenous sculpture is worth a mention. Within Inuit cultures of Canada, Greenland and Alaska, inuksuk sculptures have long been part of their tradition. This is a human or cross shaped cairn built by layering stones on one another. Inuksuk means “that which acts in the capacity of a human”, and historically have often been used for navigation, marking specific locations such as hunting grounds, sacred sites or food caches, or as way markers along a route. They have also been used as a hunting aid, as wild animals such as caribou may mistake their shape for a human, and so they can be used to funnel the animals to a specific location to be hunted.

Inuksuk (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The totem poles of Northwest Native cultures are true works of art, taking time and skill to create. They are also rich with meaning telling the story of an event, individual, family, clan or cultural legend. Both the totem poles and inuksuk are useful items as well- they can be used to remind of debts still needing repayment, or they can act as guides from those travelling across the landscape, marking both routes and informing the traveller of whose territory they have entered. Alongside all this, they are cultural symbols, and creation of these symbols gives indigenous groups the chance to come together, share the skills required to create these structures, and share the stories and meanings infused into the wood and stone.

For more info:

An article on a memorial totem pole being constructed available here

The meaning of different carvings within totem poles can be found here

Music: kongano.com

Title Image: Gord Schindell/CC BY-SA 3.0

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