How Totem Poles Work

By: Alia Hoyt
totem poles on Prince of Wales Island
Mighty totem poles stand tall on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska.
Farah Nosh/Getty Images

For many of us, the thought of totem poles conjures up images of sacred rituals and mysterious ceremonies. In reality, the ideas that many people hold regarding these organic works of art couldn't be further from the truth. Rather than objects of worship or ritual, totem poles are -- in simplest terms -- really tall, wooden family histories.

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No one knows for sure when the first totem poles were created [source: Smithsonian]. What we do know is that they began as an artistic expression of American Indians on the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Many historians believe that totems originated within the Haida tribe, which lives in southeastern Alaska. Tribes in the northern portion of Washington state and coastal British Columbia followed suit.


Archaeologists also believe that, while totem poles as we know them today didn't start being carved until the late 1700s, the same images and stories that they depict existed for hundreds (or possibly thousands) of years on smaller objects, like combs and masks. Totem poles became much more common after Europeans came to the New World. When European settlers first laid eyes on totem poles in the 1700s, they were a little frightened. Since totems were nothing like they'd ever seen before, the settlers could only guess what these strange objects were for. This gave rise to many myths about totem poles. British captain James Cook described them as "truly monstrous figures" [source: NPR].

But Europeans actually brought about an increase in totem production. They brought sophisticated metal tools with them that made it much easier for American Indian carvers to practice their art on larger pieces of wood. Thus, totems grew from the size of a walking cane to the towering works of art that we have come to know and enjoy. Interestingly enough, Europeans even tagged the art form with the name "totem poles."

What do the symbols on totem poles mean? How long does it take to make a totem pole? And why does a custom-made totem cost nearly as much as a new car?


Totem Pole Basics

totem pole in Jasper, Alberta, Canada
A totem pole in Jasper, Alberta, Canada, seems tograze the sky.
Todd Gipstein/National Geographic/Getty Images

The totem pole's main purpose is to tell a story with symbols, typically animals and people. The story usually details the history and wealth of the family that commissioned it.

Traditionally, totem poles have been used to commemorate special events. Money was (and still is) a big factor in creating a totem -- they took months to make and only the very wealthy could afford them. During the totem creation process, the head carver often lived with the host family, sometimes for several months. A head carver managed two or more junior carvers during the process. The head carver was held in high esteem, and the head of the host family was responsible for making sure that he was comfortable, happy and entertained during his stay. If his needs weren't satisfied -- or if he didn't feel respected -- the carver could use his power to embarrass the pole's commissioner. For example, the carver could portray him nude on the totem pole for all to see.


Totem poles can range in size from as short as one foot to well over a hundred feet tall, although shorter poles are more common. Authentic totem poles are made from red or yellow cedar and aren't carved with chain saws or other power tools. Totems are often painted, although they don't have to be. Traditional colors include black, white, red, yellow and blue-green. According to Steve Benson, totem carver and president of the Wood Age, a 20-foot pole can take four to six weeks to make. The process takes even longer if the pole is carved without power tools or chainsaws, as so many of the authentic totems are.

Because totem poles are wooden, they're organic works of art. A totem pole is generally expected to last about a hundred years. It isn't realistic to expect a wooden creation to survive nature's harsh elements for much longer than that. Some people choose to treat the wood by waterproofing or staining it. Most totem artisans agree that truly authentic poles have no extra preservatives applied to them. If an artist restores a decaying pole, the ceremonial pole raising must be done again.

Not just anyone can make a truly authentic totem pole. A totem must meet the following standards to be considered 100 percent authentic:

  • The totem pole must be the work of a trained Pacific Coast carver.
  • It must be raised according to specific American Indian traditions and ceremonies.
  • It must be blessed by natives of the Northwest Pacific Coast.
decaying totem pole
A totem pole created by a member of the Haida tribe decomposes into the earth.
Farah Nosh/Getty Images

The raising ceremony is a very important event. Hundreds of people gather for the celebration. After a hole is dug for the totem pole, it is carried to the site. Ropes are attached to the pole, and several people pull it into place. Onlookers dance and sing as the pole is raised and blessed.

Even today, once an authentic totem pole is completed, the raising and dedication ceremonies are followed by potlatch, a huge party thrown by the totem pole's commissioner, typically in the winter. Each attendee receives a gift from the host, with the understanding that he or she will one day return the favor. The potlatch serves to increase the commissioner's social reputation because the totem serves as a reminder of the fantastic party that he threw.


Cracking the Code: Totem Pole Symbolism

totem pole carved like a bird
The pinnacle of this totem pole from an American Indian tribe in the Everglades National Park, Florida, is carved in the shape of a bird.
Cheryl Koenig Morgan/MPI/Getty Images

As we've learned, totem poles portray an array of animal and human carvings. Some depictions are more common than others, including the thunderbird, eagle and grizzly bear. These American Indian symbols come from one of three kingdoms: sky, earth or underwater. Popular belief holds that many animals could transform into other beings -- or even into humans.

American Indians sometimes used these animals to represent an ancestor that they believed possessed this transformative ability. Or, they included a particular animal simply because they had encountered it in some meaningful way in their lives. A small sample of these animals and their symbolic interpretations include:


Eagle: Many believe the eagle to be the most useful animal because it can fly higher than other birds. The eagle is considered extremely intelligent and is able to spot trouble in advance by soaring high in the sky.

Thunderbird: This is a mythological creature with the power to create lightning with the blink of its eye and thunder by beating its wings. The thunderbird can also be invisible and create violent gusts of wind.

Bear: The bear is believed to teach natives to forage for berries and hunt wild salmon. The bear also comes to their aid in battle.

Owl: This bird represents the souls of the deceased.

Wolf: The wolf is considered very powerful. It also represents those who take care of the sick and needy.

Raven: One of the most commonly used symbols in Alaska, along with wolf, the raven is well-liked for his trickery. Despite being perceived as corrupt and hungry, the raven is the subject of more than 90 stories.

Frog: The frog is believed to bring wealth and great fortune.


Types of Totem Poles

tourists admire totem poles
In July 1950, tourists crane their necks to admire towering totem poles.
Thomas D. Mcavoy/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Totem poles can be made to fill a variety of needs, but their primary purpose is to commemorate a person or event. Some of the most common types of totems are entryway totem poles. These are placed at the entryway of a home to serve as a coat of arms of sorts. Entryway totems mainly serve to honor ancestors, make the family or clan's social and economic standing known, broadcast family accomplishments or detail a spiritual event.

On a more literal level, mortuary poles honor the dead by holding deceased ancestors' remains. Mortuary poles are like urns -- they contain a cavity that holds a deceased person's ashes.


Ridicule poles, also called shame poles, are used to elicit public embarrassment, usually for unpaid debts. Shame poles aren't erected very much anymore, mostly because American Indians strive for solidarity, rather than fighting amongst each other. One famous shame pole is the Lincoln Pole, located in Saxman, Alaska. The United States government was the target of this pole. When the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted in 1863, many slaves owned by the Tlingit tribe were freed. The tribe believed the United States government should repay them for their loss.

Other totem poles are significant because they break some kind of record. Totem carvers have a lot of pride in their work, and making a record-breaking totem pole can be a pretty competitive endeavor.

It seems obvious that to measure the tallest totem pole in the world, all you'd need to do is break out a tape measure, right? Not exactly. Alert Bay, British Columbia, boasts a 173-foot tall totem. Detractors point out that because it's made from three separate pieces of wood, it doesn't count as an authentic totem.

Other tall contenders include a 132-foot totem in Kake, Alaska. It was sanctioned properly and overlooks an American Indian reservation. But it's challenged by a 140-foot masterpiece in Kalama, Wash. The only problem with this majestic piece of art is that it wasn't carved by an American Indian. But some insist that it merits the honor of tallest because its carver is highly respected among totem artisans. Other towns have claimed that they have the tallest totem, but the argument has never been settled.

The dispute over the world's tallest totem has caused so much strife that one totem pole in Victoria, British Columbia, was torn down in 2000. Despite its status as the tallest in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the controversy was causing the town and artist a lot of grief. The totem was 185 feet tall and stood for eight years before it was toppled and chopped into pieces.

Causing much less controversy is the thickest totem pole. That honor goes to a totem carved in Duncan, British Columbia, by Richard Hunt in 1988. It boasts a diameter of more than 6 feet.

Another special totem title is oldest. This honor is shared among a couple of poles located on the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia. These totems date back to at least the 1880s, possibly even the 1840s. They won't be around much longer, however -- they're quickly deteriorating, thanks to the rainy climate [source:].


The Decline and Resurgence of Totem Poles

teaching the totem pole craft
Novice artists get a lesson from experienced totem carvers in Fairbanks, Alaska, in May 1971.
Fox Photos/Getty Images

About a hundred years ago, the totem carving art form began to decline due to a couple of factors, including:

  • American Indian children began to receive education outside of their homes, and there was less emphasis placed on learning totem carving skills.
  • The Canadian government banned the often rowdy potlatch, the traditional celebration that took place when a totem pole was raised.

In the early 20th century, totem poles were stolen from their sites on reservations for private or museum use. As a result, production nearly ceased. Very few totem poles were raised between 1910 and 1950. A grassroots effort of both native and non-native artists and scholars resurrected the art form, as well as the traditions that accompany the raising of a totem pole.


Today, totems are being carved and raised with a great resurgence. Thanks in large part to the efforts of their artists and scholarly supporters, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. This law required museums and others in possession of improperly obtained totem poles, human remains and other American Indian artifacts to return them to their rightful owners.

It's entirely possible that totem pole production could have been extinguished had no one intervened to save the art form. But totem carving is a thriving art form once again, due to the efforts of those artists who recognized totems' importance in American Indian and North American history.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Basti, Maryanne Kathleen. "Totem Poles of the North American Northwest Coast Indians." Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. 2 Feb 2008.
  • Benson, Steve. Personal Interview. 22 Jan 2008. President, The Wood Age.
  • Chainsaw Carving
  • David Morgan Totem Poles
  • Gulli Totem Poles and Carvings
  • Indian Arts and Crafts Association
  • Kinzer, Stephen. "Homecoming for the Totem Poles." The Unesco Courier 28 Jan 2008.
  • Lenz, Mary Jane. "On the Totem Trail." 1 June 2001.
  • NPR.org
  • Timber Lane Totem Poles and Waterfalls
  • Totem-Pole.net
  • Totem Poles
  • Totem Poles: An Exploration by Pat Kramer.
  • Totem Poles by Carl and Linda Muggli