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Totem Poles

Guest Author - Dawn Engler

Totem Poles an important part of heritage that was nearly lost to the native tribes of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian because of the influence of the white man. Religious groups felt they were false gods and ordered them burned. Explorers found the images hideous. When it was made illegal to hold a potlatch in Canada, missionaries and officials made it seem the same to the natives in Alaska. With this pressure, the ceremony to raise the poles was gone. When the children were herded off to public schools, the opportunity to pass on the knowledge and train became more difficult. In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were a few artisans who worked hard to bring back this tradition. One can even hire a carver to make a totem of sizes ranging inches to many feet tall, and prices ranging from a few dollars to thousands in US currency.

The history behind the origination of totem poles has been lost but there are stories of how the first fully carved pole washed ashore amongst the Haida people. The poles show the wealth of the family displaying it. The more elaborate the carvings and more poles a family had, the richer they were. Totem poles are carved from mostly cedar. Traditional colors used natural substances found where the carvers lived, and were usually black, red, brown and blue-green. Tlingit and Haida poles differ in their layout. Haida figures will interconnect while the Tlingit isolate figures and are more rounded and sculptured.

The types of poles are:

Crest, which tell the family ancestry and emblems of the clan. These represent one of two matrilineal groups that all families originate from. Either Raven or Eagle. Within these groups are smaller clans, which then subdivide into lineage, or houses.

Story Telling poles are made for weddings to preserve history, or to ridicule bad debtors.

A Shame pole is placed in front of the home of someone who has not paid a debt, until that debt is settled. A shame pole was put up in Cordova, Alaska in 2007 with the upside down, distorted face of Exxon Ex CEO Lee Raymond. It represents the still unpaid debt Exxon is to pay the Alaskan people affected by the oil spill in Valdez.

The Mortuary pole is made to honor the dead. This pole has a compartment carved into the back where the ashes are stored.


Some of the more commonly used symbols and what they represent are:

Sea Turtle – Mother Earth
Thunderbird – thunder, lightning, killer of whales. Often at top of totem, wings spread, with the whale at the bottom
Killer Whale – strength, will have straight dorsal fin and sharp teeth
Beaver – sense of family and home, will have two large front teeth and flat tail
Eagle – peace and friendship, curved beak
Bear – teacher, wide snout and rounded teeth
Wolf – helps those in need, similar to bear but with sharper teeth and more slender snout
Raven – symbol of the creator, long straight beak
Frog – brings wealth
Otter – laughter, curiosity, grace, empathy
Salmon – instinct, persistence and determination
Owl – souls of the departed

The photo to the right was taken at hotel in Seattle, WA, but it gives you an idea of the layout and height Totem Poles can have.


The Sitka National Historical Park, in Sitka, Alaska, features Totem Trail. 2011 marked the 100 year anniversary of the park, at the end of which, was the raising of a new Totem Pole named Wooch Jin Dul Shat Kooteeya, meaning Holding Hands. It represents the relationship between the Haida, Tlingit and the Park Service over the years. Saxman Village in Ketchikan holds the world’s largest number of totem poles and you might catch world renowned carver Nathan Jackson at work. Also in Ketchikan is Totem Bight State Park, which showcases 14 poles either restored, or duplicated from originals too decayed to move from their original homes. A visit to any of these places will advance the understanding of the culture and heritage of the Alaskan Totem Poles.
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Content copyright © 2013 by Dawn Engler. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Dawn Engler. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact BellaOnline Administration for details.

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