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In order to understand Totem Poles and their significance, it is necessary to try and understand the people who created them and why. Totems were originally a series of emblems representing all that a Northwest Native family-clan was and had: their kinship system, accomplishments, adventures, stories, dignity, prestige, rights and prerogatives.
Totems were a sign of the success and wealth of the native cultures that evolved along the Northwest coast of British Columbia and the states of Washington and Alaska, most notably the Haida, Kwakiutl, Tlingit and Tsimshian. Sheltered by a benevolent forest and blessed with a food filled sea, these tribes could afford the luxury of permanent village sites and ornamental art.
Of particular importance is the fact that totem poles were neither worshipped nor had any religious significance. They were records of the past in a culture that had no written language.
What do totem poles mean?
Basically, before contact, Natives in this part of the world had a different kinship system than we do today. A totem pole served as the emblem of a family or clan, its unity, the rights to which people in each clan were entitled, and as a reminder of each clans link to a spirit-ancestor. For example, a person exhibiting a Wolf totem believed one of their ancestors once lived with supernatural Wolves, and received permission from them when he returned, to use certain symbols. Using a figure meant a person was: "descended from ...." or had recently "encountered ..." or had received "a gift from ..." a supernatural being. Each clan therefore identified very strongly with the crests and figures carved on their totem pole.
Originally totem poles were usually carved as part of a Potlatch ceremony, a great and complex feast with deep meaning to coastal First Nations. There was a period between about 1900 and 1950 when, for various reasons, only a few were carved. But even during that slow period, there were Native people who kept the tradition alive and well.
In times past, a totem was raised for several reasons:
- to show the (great) number of rights a person had acquired over their lifetime
- to record an encounter with a supernatural being
- to symbolize the generosity of a person who sponsored a Potlatch ceremony.
Are there secrets hidden in totem poles?
Because Native people had no written language, totem pole stories and symbols were shared only with the pole's owner, the carver of the totem pole and whoever they chose to tell.
If the pole's owner or carvers gave an account to a relative, granted interviews to academics, or left a written record, then the meaning of these old totem poles is known today. If the carver lived long ago and someone did not write it down in a form like we do, then its stories were repeated from person to person. This is called the oral tradition. While it's not the worst way of remembering, it is certainly subject to changes and distortions over time. An old undocumented totem pole with hidden or special meanings may find that it's story is lost or at least distorted over time.
In today's world how can we understand what totem poles are all about?
To grasp the symbolism and secrets hidden within totem poles, try this exercise: study the Great Seal of the United States or the Coat of Arms (the Armorial Bearing) of Canada. OK? The symbols bound up in these national emblems are roughly equivalent to a totem pole.
In general, totem poles, just like Great Seals and Coats of Arms mean: "This is who we are; we have prestige, we are united, and we are proud to derive from, fight for, and stand for the qualities these symbols imply."
For example, the Coat of Arms of Canada features a lion and unicorn, British flag, maple leaves, fleur de lis and a motto, that sums up its national identity and origins. The Great Seal of the United States with its eagle, shield and arrows, and other features symbolize qualities that the United States chooses to identify with these symbols, For example the Eagle is seen as: noble, majestic, inspiring, intelligent, fierce, protective of its eaglets, flying high above the ordinary world with keen senses and so on. In this system we look at the "best" and noblest qualities within a symbol. For example, this particular Eagle is certainly not classified as the carrion-eater that its real-life counterpart is. So too the items it holds in its talons are imbued with positive meanings.
How old are totem poles? Since the late 1700s, as Native people gradually acquired metal tools, the aboriginals from southeastern Alaska and the Northwest Pacific coast carved larger and larger totem poles. Before contact, totem carvings were about the size of a walking cane.
This makes the totem pole tradition seem a fairly recent, doesn't it? The key thing to note is that the art forms, faces, figures and stories depicted on totem poles date back (perhaps) thousands of years and were depicted on everything from bone combs to bent boxes and masks. After contact with Europeans, tools improved, and totem poles increased in size.
Unfortunately, many of the totems that we see today are 'recarves' or recently carved copies of older totems that have been lost to weather and age. Originals can be viewed at The Totem Heritage Center, Totem Bight State Park, and Saxman Village, all in Ketchikan, and The Sitka National Historical Park. Additionally, Shakes Island in Wrangell harbor has a reconstructed lodge and several totems.
Do Native People still make totem poles? Honest-to-goodness-real totem poles continue to be carved and raised to the present day. Today, totem poles are created for both Natives and non-Natives. They have come to represent more than a kinship system. Today, they represent Northwest Pacific Coast Native tradition and pride.
Where are totem poles carved? Today the lands of the Totem People are known as:
- southeastern Alaska, USA;
- coastal British Columbia [B.C.] Canada;
- northern Washington state, U.S.A.
That's where real totem poles come from.
Since the 1930s, when Native crafts were considered a good way for indigenous people to make money, other Native tribes have "borrowed" the tradition. But it's not original to them.
If interested in learning more about Totem poles, Bobby J suggests that you read From the Land of the Totem Poles by Aldona Jonaitis, published by University of Washington Press, Seattle. If you'd like to know more about the magical creatures found on totem poles, then simply ask Bobby J.