For the full story of totems, purchase Totem Poles. A common question, often asked, is "Is this totem real or fake?

Are real totem poles still carved today? Alaskan and Pacific Northwest Native totem poles once portrayed meaningful Native symbols, stories and clan-family crests. Today, Northwest Pacific Coast First Nation's carvers also construct totem poles for non-Native people -- technically not part of the old totem tradition. However, if the totems are carved by a sanctioned carver and follow the old rules (as much as possible), they are considered legitimate.

Since authentic full size totem poles today, cost in the region of $25,000 to $100,000 each, outsiders usually commission them to commemorate a great event or a great "coming of age", to symbolize a pact between nations, or to illustrate some sort of bond between Native people and the company , person or government entity that commissions the pole. Raising a totem is a pretty important event.
What makes a totem authentic ?

To be authentic, a totem pole needs to be sanctioned.

First, it must be made by a trained Northwest Pacific Coast native person, or in rare cases, a non-Native apprentice who is approved by a Northwest Pacific Coast Tribe from southeastern Alaska, coastal British Columbia or northern Washington state.
Secondly, it must be raised and "blessed" by Northwest Coast natives or elders who are part of the totem pole tradition.

If chainsaw artists, non-Native imitators, or (non-apprenticed) Natives from tribes far away from the Northwest Pacific Coast claim to produce "totem poles", under the rules of the Northwest Pacific Coast native totemic tradition, the poles they produce are fakes. Not just anyone can produce an authentic totem. It's not just the art, it's the tradition and ceremonies that go with it.

But let's give credit where credit is due. Most chain saw artists do not claim to produce real totem poles.


Fun fake Totems

Chainsaw Artist

What about argillite totems?

Small argillite totems, a kind of black slate found only in northern BC, made for the tourist trade, are "real", under the following conditions:

-they are miniature prototypes of poles that were never built
-they are authentic copies of poles that once stood
-they are miniature copies of poles still standing
-they are assembled under the rules of protocol still practiced today.


A great number of the miniature totem poles found in souvenir stores fall into the last category.

However, totems are not truly "authentic" if an outsider just "made them up". But they can still be fun to own.

Argillite Totem Pole

What about make-believe magic "totem" talismen?

Recently, the word "totem" has come into use as part of the elaborate "Dungeons and Dragons" game playing strategy. Players give and receive "totems," talisman-like magical-charms that are said to empower its users with certain powers and attributes. These include totems named "Parrot," "Jaguar," "Tiger," "King Arthur," etc.

Some New Age artists and jewelers also employ the "totem" as a image for various qualities they imbue into the object. Confusion arises if these groups claim their artificial "totem" constructs are part of the "ancient" First People's practice of building totem poles. These types of talismen-totems are/were not part of any Pacific Northwest Coast First Nations' traditions.

Totem poles are emblems, not talismen. The difference is significant.

Totem Talisman are not part of the tradition

Do other nations or countries make totem poles?

Certain indigenous (first) people in Japan, Africa, India, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii and Africa produce wooden figures that are sometimes referred to as "totems". But they are more properly called "carvings", "greet figures" "ancestor figures" or "tikis".


Technically it might be argued in the widest sense that they are some sort of "totems". However, they often represent some sort of ancestor worship, taboos, or depiction of "gods" and none of these practices have ever been a part of the Pacific West Coast totem tradition .

Japanese Ainu totem poles

New Zealand Maori "totems"


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