For the full story of totems, purchase Altitude's Totem Poles.

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.
 


Thunderbird mask

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.

 

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 clan s link to a spirit-ancestor.

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.


Talking stick

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:

1) southeastern Alaska, USA; 2) coastal British Columbia [B.C.] Canada, and 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.

 


Totems, by
Emily Carr about 1900


DEFINITION: Totems originally were a series of emblems representing a Northwest Native family-clan, their kinship system, dignity, accomplishments, prestige, adventures, stories, rights and prerogatives.


Alaska postcard about 1940


Hamatsa Dancer


Modern Totem on ship

 

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