Northwest Coast totem pole myths

November 19, 2012
Robin K. Wright

The term "totem pole" refers to the tall cedar poles with multiple figures carved by Native people of the northern Northwest Coast. Several different types of monumental poles include: house frontal poles placed against the house front, often serving as doorways of houses; carved interior house posts that support roof beams, and free standing memorial poles placed in front of houses to honor deceased chiefs. Mortuary poles made in the nineteenth century housed the coffins of important people in a niche at the top. Carved of red cedar logs, the figures on totem poles are inherited crests, which identify the pole owners and tell their family histories.

Although totem poles have become a symbol of all Northwest Coast Native people and their use has spread to neighboring tribes through the years, tall multiple-figure poles were first made only by the northern Northwest Coast Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian peoples in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia.

Large free-standing human welcome figures and interior house posts were made by the Kwakwak'wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth people further south, and the Coast Salish people in Southern British Columbia and western Washington also carved large human figures representing ancestors and spirit helpers on interior house posts and as grave monuments.

In the late 1800s most tribes ceased to carve these monumental poles when the potlatch, the ceremony held when poles were raised, was made illegal in Canada. At this time Native artists began to carve small model poles for sale as souvenirs to tourists. The anti-potlatch law was dropped in 1951, and today, Native people throughout the Northwest Coast raise new poles to honor deceased relatives and celebrate family histories and important events in their lives.

William Shelton carving pole, 1930s.

William Shelton carving pole, 1930s.
Photo: MOHAI

Totem Pole Myths

Myth: Totem poles are a recent introduction to the Northwest Coast.
Fact: Native Northwest Coast oral histories tell us that tall carved poles have been made on the Northwest Coast since ancient times. The earliest European explorer's drawing of a Northwest Coast house frontal pole was made at Dadens village on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) in 1791. The size and number of totem poles did grow during the 1800s.

Myth: Totem poles can be read just like a book.
Fact: While it is sometimes possible to identify different animals, such as bears, ravens, eagles, it is not possible to interpret what the pole really means without knowing the history of the pole and the family that owns it.

Myth: The "low man on the totem pole" has the lowest status.
Fact: There is no universal significance to the order in which figures are placed on poles. Occasionally "ridicule" figures were carved to shame or embarrass a rival.

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