Burke Museum Home

Totem Poles

What do the totem poles outside represent?

There are not only totem poles outside the Burke Museum, but monuments as well. 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.

"Single Fin," Replica of the Howkan Whale Monument (cat. no. 1988-75/1). Found directly in front of the building, this is a replica of a grave monument in Howkan, Alaska. Called "Single Fin", the original monument was commissioned around 1880 by Moses Koohl-Keet as a memorial to his uncle, head of Brown Bear House, a branch of the Quetas Ravens. It was carved by John Wallace, then a young man. In 1985, Koohl-keet's relatives witnessed the unveiling at the Burke Museum's 100th anniversary. Curator Emeritus Bill Holm, carved the replica based on photographs of the Howkan whale, and on the original fin, which is in the Burke Museum's ethnology collection (cat. no. 1-1682).

Replica of Haida House Frontal Pole (cat. no. R-199) This is a replica of a pole that once stood in front of a house in the village of Haina (caynaa, New Gold Harbor) in the Queen Charlotte Islands. It was erected around 1870 by "He Whose Word Is Obeyed", and displays both his crests and those of his wife, "The Sound of Coppers Clanging." From the bottom to the top the figures represent: a killer whale, it's upturned tail with a bird head; a woman, identified by the labret (ornament) in her lip, grasping the whale's dorsal fin and wearing a ringed basketry hat; two watchmen figures at her side; Tsamaos, the personification of a supernatural river snag who capsized the canoes of the unwary; a heron with its wings enclosing a human figure who grasps the heron's tail feathers; a man wearing a whale skin with flippers, dorsal fin and tail; and two watchmen at his sides wearing ringed basketry hats who warn the owners of approaching visions of danger. This replica was carved by Bill Holm, 1971, based on photos of the original pole, which no longer survives.

Photo by Marius Barbeau, early 20th c.

Replica of Tsimshian Memorial Pole (cat. no. R-300). This is a replica of a Tsimshian memorial pole that once stood in the Nisga'a village of Gitlakhdamks in northern British Columbia. It was raised in memory of a deceased chief by his relatives as a public announcement that his successor was assuming his rank and privileges. Carved in 1880, the figures from bottom to top represent a humanoid bear; a bird (raven or mountain hawk); a sea-bear with a dorsal fin and upturned nostrils; and a human figure that grasps the dorsal fin of the sea-bear. This replica was carved by Bill Holm, 1969, based on photos of the original pole, which no longer survives.

Replica of Tlingit Mortuary Pole (cat. no. R-299). A chest at the top of the original mortuary pole held the remains of a Tlingit chief. On this replica pole, the figure of a high-ranking man wears a prestigious ringed basketry hat and sits on a carved bentwood chest. The original pole stood in the village of Old Wrangell (Kasitlan), near present-day Wrangell, Alaska. The noted artist Kadyisdu.áxch probably carved that mortuary pole. This replica was carved by Bill Holm, 1972 based on photos of the original pole, which no longer survives.

Photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1914

Replica of Dzunuk'wa Figure (cat. no. R-200). Some people equate her with Sasquatch- Bigfoot- the shy hairy giant of the forest. Others view her as a fearsome mythical creature that can be the source of great wealth. The privilege of representing her in carving and performance is a prized heritage of some Kwakwaka'wakw chiefs. Erected in Gwa'yasdam's village on Gilford Island, B.C., for three years, the original Dzunuk'wa figure faced down the beach toward the owner's in-laws, who had not paid a marriage debt. Such "ridicule poles" were raised to shame someone who owed a debt to a chief. When the in-laws honored the debt, the pole was pivoted to face the water. Symbols of wealth-shield-shaped coppers were then added to her head and hands. The figure was carved by Bill Holm in 1970 based on photos of the original pole and the original head that is now part of the Burke's ethnology collection (2.5E645). At that time her body was painted black. Based on analysis of historical photographs and evidence in the works of Emily Carr, Bill Holm has come to believe the body of the original sculpture was painted red. The replica was changed from black to red in 2002, when it was placed outside.