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

In today's world can we understand what totem poles are all about?

To grasp the symbolism and secrets hidden within totem poles, try this exercise: study the Great Seal of the United States or the Coat of Arms (the Armorial Bearing) of Canada. OK? The symbols bound up in these national emblems are roughly equivalent to a totem pole.

In general, totem poles, just like Great Seals and Coats of Arms mean: "This is who we are; we have prestige, we are united, and we are proud to derive from, fight for, and stand for the qualities these symbols imply."

For example, the Coat of Arms of Canada features a lion and unicorn, British flag, maple leaves, fleur de lis and a motto, that sums up its national identity and origins.


Coat of Arms

And, the Great Seal with its Eagle, shield and arrows features symbols, assigned a certain meaning, that symbolize qualities the United States chooses to identify with. For example the Eagle is seen as: noble, majestic, inspiring, intelligent, fierce, protective of its eaglets, flying high above the ordinary world with keen senses and so on. In this system we look at the "best" and noblest qualities within a symbol. For example, this particular Eagle is certainly not classified as the carrion-eater that its real-life counterpart is. So too the items it holds in its talons are imbued with positive meanings.


Seal containing symbolic images

 

What purpose did totem poles serve for Pacific Northwest Native people?

Totem poles are emblems that symbolized where a person stood within a big family grouping-- not just a mother, father, sister, brother, but within a whole clan of relatives.

In a Native kinship system, people were considered related:
by blood,
by experience
by war exploits
and by adoption.
Each clan identified very strongly with the crests and figures carved on their totem pole.

Additionally, each totem symbol can be traced back to a mystical clan-founding ancestor. Totem origins are so far back in time that they are non-human. For example, a person exhibiting a Wolf totem believed one of their ancestors once lived with supernatural Wolves, and received permission from them when he returned, to use certain symbols. Using a figure meant a person was: "descended from ...." or had recently "encountered ..." or had received "a gift from ..." a supernatural being.

 


Totem Raising

 

Are there secrets hidden in totem poles?

Because Native people had no written language, totem pole stories and symbols were shared only with the pole's owner, the carver of the totem pole and whoever they chose to tell.

If the pole's owner or carvers gave an account to a relative, granted interviews to academics, or left a written record, then the meaning of these old totem poles is known today. If the carver lived long ago and someone did not write it down in a form like we do, then its stories were repeated from person to person. This is called the oral tradition. While it's not the worst way of remembering, it is certainly subject to changes and distortions over time. An old undocumented totem pole with hidden or special meanings may find that it's story is lost or at least distorted over time.


Totems with written notes are better understood

 

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