For the full story of totems, purchase Altitude's Totem Poles. Then go surfing the Internet and see the number of people or organizations who wistfully refer to themselves as "low man on the totem pole". It means "I have little or no status and have to answer to everyone above me".


In terms of real totem poles this expression is so contrary, one wonders why people say it.

At first glance it might appear that the lowest figure on a totem pole, has the weight of an entire menagerie on top. Interestingly enough however, the lowest end of an authentic totem pole is as important as any other part.

Why is the low man important?
Totem poles are carved, not by one carver, but by a head carver and a number of apprentice-carvers. The head carver has a reputation to uphold. Therefore he or she is well aware that the viewers of a finished upright pole range in size from 3 feet (children) to about 7 feet (basketball players). So, to be certain the totem looks professional, the chief carver personally carves or seriously supervises the bottom ten feet of the pole. Inexperienced apprentices are allowed more freedom to carve the higher regions. Therefore the bottom of all totem pole is sometimes the best carved part of the whole pole. Meaning wise, the low man has a much or more meaning than other figures.

What's on top of totems?
Many poles (but certainly not all of them!) are topped off with a Thunderbird, sort of a generic capper figure, something like a Christmas star. This figure gained importance in the 1930s when the Roosevelt administration encouraged tribes such as the Ojibway and others to carve totem poles for sale to the public. Though they had no totem tradition, they carved generic totem poles making the Thunderbird topper a common sight.

Thunderbird (sometimes simply called "Eagle") is a regal figure, but in many cases has far less meaning than all the carefully thought out symbolic creatures carved into the lower regions.

Also it's important to note that many Pacific Northwest Native tribes never put Thunderbird on top of their totems.

The Haida often place three Watchmen on top of their totems.

And there can be all sorts of other figures placed on the sky-end of a totem pole.

Low man with important copper

Thunderbird on top

Thunderbird over whale

Chief as Low man, Eagle coffin as the topper

Bear with Frog on top


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