Native American Totem Poles -
History, Meaning and Today


Native American Totem Poles are THE the symbols of the peoples of the Northwest Pacific Coast.
They are one of the MOST expensive Native American pieces of art, yet if it's commissioned, can be highly personal and deeply meaningful.



A Bit of History

The word "totem" is derived from the Algonkian word Dodem, originally meaning "to be related to someone" (i.e. someone who shares a family crest, or totem).


Native American totem poles are an ancient tradition of the Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast--Washington state in the USA, British Columbia in Canada--and some of the Athabaskan tribes of southern Alaska. The designs on them are as varied as the tribes. The poles may depict familiar legends, clan lineages or notable events. They may also illustrate stories, commemorate historic persons, represent shamanic powers, and to provide objects of public ridicule. Some figures serve as symbolic reminders of quarrels, murder, and/or debt.



The reasons why Native American Totem Poles were erected is also varied...to celebrate cultural beliefs, artistic presentations, mortuaries, etc.

Info snippet: Did you know... totem poles were never objects of worship contrary to what the missionaries thought!!!


...Low Man on the Totem Pole...

Vertical order of the images is believed to be a significant representation of importance...so important that "Low Man on the Totem Pole" has much less prestige and importance than the ones above. Having said that, there are poles where the more important images ARE at the bottom or in the middle.

Of course, there is a BUT...a totem pole is carved by a chief carver and apprentices. The lower part of the totem pole is the part most often looked at. To make sure the totem looks professional and well-executed, the chief carver personally carves the bottom ten feet of the pole...the inexperience apprentices carve the higher part. BOTTOM LINE...the most intricate and best carved figures are usually placed on the bottom.



Background on Native American Totem Images
Read an endearing story about a totem pole being returned to Alaska



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The Native American Gossip "Column"...

Comparable to putting a newspaper full of notices on a placecard in front of City Hall, the Shame Pole was used for public ridicule and was usually erected to shame individuals or groups for unpaid debts. (Sound like anyone you know deserves a LARGE Shame Pole?)


Info Snippet: Did you know... there is a famous Shame Pole in Saxman, Alaska created to shame the U.S. government into repaying the Tlingit (a northwest tribe) people for the value of slaves who were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation???


Construction of Shame Poles has essentially stopped within the last 100 years due to a decline in interclan rivalries and a desire for solidarity among most native tribes. Every once in a while erecting Shame Poles against the American and Canadian governments has been proposed, though "tongue-in-cheek". It could happen if reaction to a political decision is strong enough, but the cost would be prohibitive.


Modern Day Construction

Placing Native American Totem Poles is almost never done using modern methods, regardless of where they are placed. A large wooden scaffold is built, hundreds of strong men haul the pole upright into the footings, others steady the pole using ropes and brace it with cross beams. Once in place, there is a celebration (potlatch) where the carver is paid and other traditional activities are conducted. Once the pole is freestanding, the carver will perform a dance while holding his carving tools. The base of the pole is burnt before placement to provide a rot resistance.

Once in place, the poles are typically not well maintained. Once the wood rots so badly that it becomes a hazard, it is either destroyed or removed. It's believed that the deterioration of the pole is representative of natural processes of decay and death that occur with all living things.


The Designs, The Artist and the Culture

Native American artists draw inspiration from their natural surroundings, portraying images of birds, marine creatures, and characters of legends.



BUT, 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 the pole! 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.

Another BUT...Native American Totem Poles IN GENERAL are not the exclusive cultural property of a single culture, so the designs are not easily protected. So, as with dream catchers, the art and tourist trinket worlds have been flooded by cheap imitation of totem poles, constructed and carved with little or no knowledge of the complex stylistic conventions of Northwest Coast art.



Info Snippet: Did You Know... The Southwest Indians, Plains Indians, and Inuit never carved totem poles (Hey!!! There are no trees that size in the Sonoran desert or the Arctic tundra!)


Now and then, though, you will hear an anthropologist claim that there was never any such thing as Native American Totem Poles at all before Europeans came to the New World. (I never heard that while at Penn State as an anthropology major!) Since the poles are made of wood and decay over time, there is no way to prove to anthropologists if this were true or not, but the oral histories of Northwestern Indians and their neighbors are unanimous about totem poles existing in those cultures long before European arrival, and the form and designs of totem poles are so stylized and distinctive, it's hard to believe they sprang up recently. They have definitely grown in size since the Native Americans started using European woodcarving tools, though.


Info Snippet: Did You Know... There were majestic totem poles made during the 1800's of single pieces of cedar up to forty feet high.


And Today...

Totem poles today are carved for both Natives and non-Natives. These poles have come to represent Northwest Pacific Coast Native tradition and pride.



Today, both short and tall Native American Totem Poles poles are still enthusiastically made by Northwestern and Alaskan Indian artists, and they can be purchased--for a price. This is probably the single most expensive native art form there is, no surprise given the cost of a full-grown cedar tree and the amount of hand-carving and painting required to turn it into a totem pole.

Financially speaking, if you find a large totem pole being sold for less than $500 a foot, it is probably not hand-carved, not made by a native artist, and/or not carved from a single tree trunk. Even imitation totems are pricy, and spending $2000 on a cheaply made fake is in many ways less affordable than spending $8000 on a genuine artwork.

If you're looking for something less expensive, look around at collections of beautiful Indian woodcarving (including Northwest Coast bentwood boxes and wall plaques with similar designs to those on totem poles).



Real or Fake...

Totem poles carved by Native American artisans for their own people portray the owner's deeply meaningful symbols and family "coat-of-arms".

Though carving for non-Native Americans is not part of the old totemic tradition, it has become part of the modern one. With the cost being somewhat prohibitive, non-native Americans usually commission Native American Totem Poles to commemorate a great event, a pact between nations or to illustrate a bond or agreement between Native American people and the source of the commission.

To be authentic, the pole must pass certain tests...it must be made by a trained Pacific Coast carver; it must be raised and blessed by Northwest Pacific Coast natives or elders who are part of the totem pole tradition.

Info Snippet: Did you know... totem poles made with chain saws are not of the native totemic tradition!!!

Small wood totem poles made for the tourist trade are "real" under the following conditions:

  • they are miniature prototypes of Native American Totem Poles once sanctioned but never built
  • they are authentic copies of Native American Totem Poles that once stood
  • they are authentic copies of Native American Totem Poles still standing
  • they are assembled under the rules of protocol still practiced today


Totem Poles, An Exploration of Pat Kramer is a very nice site.




If Native American Totem Poles are an art form you're interest in for either buying or collecting, become familiar with it. Visit museums to study the various forms, designs, and sizes. Go to art shows that showcase Native American artisans. Antique shows are also a good venue - go through the booths of vendors specializing in Native American items. If they are passionate, they may be able to answer your questions. And, of course, inter-tribal powwows are excellent venues to look and ask.

You can also go the The Indian Arts and Crafts Association for a listing of registered and certified Native American Artisans.

Above all, any art form, including Native American Totem Poles, being marketed as crafted by a Native American must legally be just that. The spirit of the law is that any artwork or craft fashioned by a Native American, the artisan must be a member of an Indian Tribe, and their membership has been verified and certified.

These Native American artisans are practicing their art perhaps as a livelihood. And, through their art, they are keeping their culture, history and spirituality alive.

Native American Arts has free e-books covering the subjects of Collecting and Fraudulence that are excellent!


Background on Native American Totem Images

Click to read an endearing story of a totem pole being returned to Alaska!

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