How Totem Poles Work

Types of Totem Poles

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

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:].

Next, we'll look at some controversies that contributed to the decline of the art form.