Totem Poles


Carved by indigenous people on the Northwest coast of Native America, traditionally out of western red cedar.

Totem poles usually portray characters in stories, either from myths or from people the carvers know, such as ancestors of living people. The characters often gain prestige and importance the higher they are on the totem pole. The characters are often portrayed as creatures, either real or mythical, such as the thunder bird. Some creatures have human features to show them transforming in to the animal, but all of this depends on the people who created them. Totem poles are traditionally not religious, but seen as a cultural artistic piece. The poles are not worshipped and are often left to rot.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Christian missionaries discouraged the making of totem poles, as they believed it encouraged the worship of nature over the worship of God. By 1901, almost all totem pole making had ceased. By the late 1930s, a renewed interest began, through, the interest of scholars, artistic rivalry, and an interest in the culture. Totem poles began to be made again and historic ones were collected, in order to be preserved.




there are six different types of poles,


House frontal poles – typically 20-30 feet tall, they are the most decorative poles. Known as the family poles, they tell a story of the family who live inside. These are often the most important in the village.


House posts – usually 8-10 feet, they are displayed inside to hold up roof beams, sometimes there is more than one. Similar to the frontal poles, the carvings tell stories of the family who occupies the house.


Mortuary poles – the rarest and tallest of the poles, 50-60 feet hight, they were incorporated into graves. These would be for very important people and their ashes or body would be stored in the top section of the pole.


Memorial poles – used to commemorate the dead or to remember an event. The story of the person or event would be carved onto the pole, and the pole would be erected outside the house or in a public place.


Welcome poles – placed at the edge of settlements, to welcome people to the community or to intimidate strangers.


Shame poles – often tell a story of someone’s wrong doings, such as the owing of debt.  These were carved, then put in public places until the wrong had been put right.

I feel that my work has aesthetic similarities to totem poles, such as the long, thin shape, and the design of stacking characters on top of each other. Perhaps I could incorporate the telling of a story as in the traditional totem poles and combine this with my idea of personifying the wood from different species of tree to give each tree its own family history.




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