Burke Museum Home

Totem Poles: Heraldic Monuments of Cedar


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.

Haida ancestral figure
Haida ancestral figure, from a totem pole in Old Kasaan, Alaska.
Photo by Adelaide deMenil

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.


Totem Pole Bibliography

Barbeau, C. Marius
1929 Totem Poles of the Gitksan. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada Bulletin 61.
1950 Totem Poles (2 Vols). Ottawa: National Museums of Canada Bulletin 119.
Garfield, Viola
1980 The Seattle Totem Pole. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Garfield, Viola and Linn Forest
1948 The Wolf and the Raven. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Halpin, Marjorie
1981 Totem Poles: an Illustrated Guide. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Jensen, Vickie
1992 Where the People Gather: Carving a Totem Pole. Seattle and Vancouver: University of Washington Press amd Dpig;as & McIntyre.
Keithahn, Edward
1963 Monuments in Cedar. Seattle: Superior Publishing Co.
MacDonald, George
1983 Haida Monumental Art. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
1983 Ninstints: Haida World Heritage Site. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
1984 The Totem Poles and Monuments of Gitwangak Village. Ottawa: National Historic Parks Branch.
Malin, Edward
1986 Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Timber Press.
Nuytten, Phil
1982 The Totem Carvers: Charlie James, Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin. Vancouver: Panorama Publications.National Museum of Man
1972 'Ksan: Breath of Our Grandfathers. Ottawa.
Reid, Bill and A. DeMenil
1971 Out of the Silence. Aman Carter Museum.
Riley, L.
1988 Marius Barbeau's Photographic Collection: The Nass River. Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 109, Mercury Series. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Smyly, John and Carolyn
1975 The Totem Poles of Skedans. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Stewart, Hilary
1984 Cedar: Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Wingert, Paul S.
1976 American Indian Sculpture: A Study of the Northwest Coast. New York: Hacker Art Books (1949).
Wright, Robin.
2001 Northern Haida Master Carvers. Seattle, WA: U. of Washington Press.
Wherry, J. H.
1974 The Totem Pole Indians. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Inc.