Indians 101: The Totem Pole

( – promoted by navajo)


photo credit: Aaron Huey

The totem pole has become the symbol of the Northwest Coast tribes. The totem pole is an art form unique to the First Nations who live along the Pacific coast in British Columbia, Alaska, and Washington. The totem pole is characterized by its tall, columnar form bearing images of humans, birds, and other animals of the sea and forest.  This is a precise art form which embodies a statement of beliefs about important social realities, including descent, inheritance, power, privilege, and social worth. It is one of the outstanding art forms of the people who inhabited the Northwest Coast long before the arrival of European explorers and settlers.


Shown above are totem poles at the University of British Columbia.  



Prior to the coming of the Europeans, totem poles were found primarily among the Tlingit, Haida, Tshimshian, and Kwakiutl. After iron tools were introduced to the area by the Europeans, the carving of totem poles spread to other nations along the coast. Not all totem poles are the same, in either meaning or structure: there are several basic kinds of totem poles.  

Totem poles are not worshipped, nor are they a part of religious ceremonies. The totem pole is often a family crest. The frontal totem pole is erected against the front of the family house displaying the family crest. This is the totem pole which in historic times was most visible to non-Indian visitors. Inside the house there are interior house poles supporting the beams of the house. Originally the house totem poles were within the house, and when steel tools made it possible to increase their size, were they moved outside in front of the house.


Among the Northwest Coast tribes each house had a specific name. This name was handed down through successive generations and the name reflects the major crests associated with the lineage (family group) associated with the house. These crests, shown in the totem poles, were public displays of the heritage of the house.

Traditionally, the houses were more than simply living space for the members of lineage: they were also the repository of lineage treasures; they served as meeting places; and they were ceremonial spaces. The houses were viewed as living things.

The memorial pole is erected when a high-ranking person dies and it displays the crest figures which are pertinent to his family. Mortuary poles among the Haida contain boxes which hold the remains of the deceased while in other nations the mortuary poles simply mark the location of the grave. With regard to the Tlingit, the totem pole was used for keeping the ashes of the dead. It was often a single figure mounted upon an undecorated pole.

The carvings on the totem poles serve as family lineage crests and illustrate family legends. The figures on the pole represent both characters and events of the mythological age as well as the experiences and accomplishments of known ancestors and living persons.

There are three aspects to the meaning of a totem pole. First, it is a visible, symbolic representation of family history. Second, the family history is publicly recounted and witnessed. When the pole is erected, a respected orator using ceremonial language traces the names of the family and gives the details of the events which are embodied in the images. In some instances the narrative is presented in dramatic form in which clan members in elaborate costumes dance, sing, and act out the events. Finally, the erection of a totem pole is surrounded by appropriate rituals.

The raising of a totem pole is always accompanied by a potlatch with the guests acting as witnesses that the family has the right to erect the pole. The social significance of the totem pole occurred at the time when the pole was dedicated and its story recited. Once the totem pole had been raised and formally dedicated, there was little recognition obtained from efforts to preserve them. Over time, the totem poles were allowed to disintegrate.


It is not possible for a person who is ignorant of the ceremonial context in which the pole was raised to be able to “read” the pole as if it were a glyphic or pictographic presentation of myth or history. While the poles are erected in commemoration of certain events, the poles are not narrative in character, but rather they symbolized the rights validated by the narratives recited at the time of erection.

The figures on a totem pole are arranged from top to bottom, but the sequence of the figures is not an indication of their importance. The concept of “low man on the totem pole” is not an expression of Northwest Coast culture as position on the pole is not an indication of rank.

Shown below is an internal totem pole from a Chinook longhouse on the Columbia River in Washington:


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