For the full story of totem poles, purchase Altitude's Totem Poles. While the totem pole tradition is a serious one, there is still plenty of room for a little humor. During the months that it takes a team to carve a totem, there's bound to be some joking around and merriment. So go ahead and catch the visual jokes that are sometimes hidden in totem poles.
What about humor in the old days?

One of the responsibilities of the totem's owner was to keep the carvers amused, warm, fed and happy during the long carving process. In times past, if the carvers felt they were not treated to top-of-the-line treatment, or if they were not paid what they thought they were owed, they might accidentally carve a figure upside down. Maybe if their treatment was really below par, they might carve the figure of the chief stark naked. When this happened, the chief was usually too embarrassed to raise the totem, so there are no examples of naked-chief-totems that we can see today. But we do hear stories. Today, the practice of carving things upside down looks so cute, that it's done fairly often. It's done on purpose.

What about humor today?
Examples of humor are more common on B.C. totems than on Alaska s totem poles. Some funny bits that are quite common include:

-little figures sticking out the ears or the belly buttons of creatures
-Whale--who always needs a blowhole somewhere--often finds there's a little human face peering out of it

-squeezed little figures have hands as if they are trying to escape from the totem saying "Let me outta here!".

Figure in ear


Let me outta here

Some of the best humor is found in totem poles that double as ceremonial entrances to a House. In one famous totem, now replicated (without its house) in Stanley Park Vancouver BC, Raven's beak is made from the two halves of a canoe. In the original totem, the V-shaped canoe-mouth could be opened to reveal a small ceremonial entrance, and there was sort of an incline slide-arrangement into the house. When the chief from another village came to visit, all dressed in his heavy ceremonial robes, the host-chief would bow to the visitor, and say, "After you..". The visiting chief, trying to be dignified, would enter the ceremonial door either head first or feet first, then plop down the short, steep slide, and arrive with a thump and a tangle, all akimbo. All the villagers assembled inside would have a good belly laugh. Their own chief usually slipped in through the regular door and waited patiently for the visiting chief to compose himself.

Another more complicated embarrassment-door (shown below) is illustrated in this low ceremonial entrance--about 4 feet high. Hidden underneath the ground, is a hole big enough for a man to hide. It was dug before the totem pole was raised. In the bottom of the doorway is a false panel like a manhole cover. When the visiting chief stooped down to step through the doorway, the person hidden in the hole, pushed up on the false floor panel. The visiting chief, all heavy laden with his robes, tripped with a splat as he entered the House. Once again the assembled villagers would have a good laugh. Then, as their own chief enters, there is no trick, and he enters with dignity. This humorous totem is in Vancouver BC. 

Archival image Raven ceremonial entrance with beak closed

Raven Ceremonial Entrance recreated


Trap door on floor

Trap door illustration

Funny face, let me outta here

Man in Whale's blowhole hitching a ride

This figure is a very old example of a totem with some pretty raunchy humor hidden in it ( illustrated below). I won't show you an extreme close up of it, so you'll have to take my word for it. But you can see this figure for yourself in the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver BC. Where the legs of the big chief meet at his midsection, there is an open mouth figure in which are drilled a series of holes. The backside of this totem is a U-shaped hollow. Originally, it wasn't free standing. It was positioned inside a Big House against a wall. During the Winter Dance ceremonies, someone would hide in the hollow back of this totem with buckets of water at the ready. When a visiting dancer veered close to this figure, the hidden-person would forcefully throw the water through the holes, and you guessed it, the dancer received a surprise shower.... from a surprising place. What's even funnier about this particular totem pole is that years ago, way back in 1993, there was a World Summit in Vancouver. When President Clinton met with President Yeltsin from the U.S.S.R., they visited this museum. They chose to stand right in front of this particular figure and posed for the official photograph that was flashed around the world! Good thing no-one chose to show them the water trick!

at the base, see the two slaves, smiling.

Slaves were unhappy, so that in itself is a joke.

Raunchy waterspray humor close up

Surprisingly, creatures that have their tongues sticking out are not meant to be humorous. Tongue-thrusting is serious and shows that the creature is giving knowledge or power to the creatures to whom it is thrusting its tongue. Another feature that is sometime thought to be funny, but is actually meant to be frightening, are pursed lips. Think of the sound you make when you are coaxing an animal. You purse your lips, make a kissing sound and say, "Here kitty, kitty...smack smack." In totem lore, these lips are always found on a slit-eyed cannibal-monster convincing you to come to its lair. There it will eat you up. This fearsome quality is shown via its pursed lips.

Cannibals purse their lips

Tongue thrusting shows the imparting of power


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