Brushing a totem with cedar for "life" is a sign of respect.
The following statements are untrue.
-Totems were once worshipped . (Never, ever. They
are emblems, not icons.)
-Totems are/were used as talismen. (Never, ever.)
-Northwest Pacific Coast shamans used totem poles to ward off evil spirits. (Never.)
-The totem poles in the popular viewing area in
Stanley Park, Vancouver BC, are fakes. (They are real, very valuable, and if they
have been replaced, are authorized replacements of the original poles.)
-A slave was once buried at the base of a totem.
(Totems have been dug up to verify this, it is not true! Once they did find a U.S.
silver dollar buried at the base. Hardly the same thing...)
-Ancient, weird totemic traditions were once practiced. (Totem pole practices are
quite logical and have evolved mostly over the last 200 years since metal tools made
totem making easier. Claims of bizarre, magical "totemism" practices are
-Totem pole building today is a vanishing legacy.
(Today, authentic native totem pole carving thrives in southeastern Alaska &
British Columbia; however, it is true that for about 40 years between 1910 and 1950
only a few true totem poles were built and raised.)
-Decaying totem poles are thousands of years old. (In reality, most totem poles,
though made of decay resistant cedar, fall over in about 100 years; the oldest ones
in Ninstints, BC date from about the 1840s and 1850s.)
-Painted poles are fakes. (Some poles are painted, some are not. The choice is the
carvers to make.)
-Unpainted poles are fakes. (Ditto, to the above
-Totem poles are solemn and always very serious. (Actually, there are several jokes
woven into totem poles such as figures "accidentally" carved upside down,
or a little figures winking, grinning and peeking out of Bear's ear or out of Whale's
blowhole. Tricks have occasionally been played on the pole's sponsor. If the person
paying for the pole annoys the carvers too much, he might be portrayed on the pole,
- a little too embarrassingly naked. A little touch of carved-in amusement, here
and there, is a valid part of the tradition.)
-No other aboriginal people make real totem poles. (New Zealand's Maori people construct
a form of totem to commemorate their ancestors and the Ainu people from Hakkaido
in northern Japan build totem pole-like clusters of tree trunks as "playgrounds"
for their gods. "Is there any relation between these people and the Natives
of the Northwest Pacific Coast?" is the more interesting, unanswered question.)
Tall totem in Alert Bay
Experience shows that the following statements
seem to contain a kernel of truth.
-It seems to be bad luck to have the "tallest" totem pole. There have been
disputes, fights, murders, pole chopping, arguments, and official dismantling of
-It seems to be bad luck to carve a full size duplicate
of a totem pole without permission from the family of the people who own the original
pole. At the least, it shows bad manners.
-It seems to be bad luck for strangers to replace an old totem pole with a new one
or to remove an old totem pole unless they have permission to do so. At the least,
it shows bad manners.
-It seems to be bad luck to claim to be a totem-pole-carver unless completing a apprenticeship
to a Northwest Pacific Coast Native who follows the tradition. At the least, it shows
-It seems to be bad luck to steal a totem pole.
At the least, it is illegal.
-It seems to be bad luck to kick a totem pole. At
the least, it shows bad manners.
The following are examples of either good
manners or good luck.
It seems to be good luck to keep a totem pole (a 3 foot high one) aboard a submarine
in war and bad luck to lose it. To find this fascinating story, search for the keywords
totem pole + submarine.
-It seems to be good luck to officially borrow a
totem pole and later return it. This has happened several times between tribes, groups