Totem Poles text only Totem poles: text-only

Navigate to a region or village

Introduction to Northwest Coast Totem Poles

This and all the trappings of ceremony were objects of bright pride, to be admired in the newness of their crisply curved lines, the powerful flow of sure elegant curves and recesses - yes, and in the brightness of fresh paint. They told the people of the completeness of their culture, the continuing lineages of the great families, their closeness to the magic world of universal myth and legend. The poles were many things, the house pole told of the lineage of the chief who presided within. The memorial pole commemorated some great event. The grave pole contained the body and displayed the crest of a leading noble. And in the great houses, massive figures - illuminated by firelight - supported the roof beams. Each held the essential spirit of the individual or family it commemorated, as well as the spirit of the artist who made it, and by an extension, the living essence of the whole people. When Haida artist, Bill Reid, published these words in 1970, he feared that these ancient traditions had been silenced and that they would soon disappear. For more than a century diseases, missionaries, government agents and economic pressures had devastated Native cultures. The ceremonies that accompanied the raising of totem poles were suppressed. But the culture did not die. Today, thanks in part to Bill Reid and other artists, the silence has clearly been shattered. Native arts are flourishing, poles are being raised up and down the Northwest Coast, and the villages are alive again with the sounds of ancestral songs and ceremonies. This exhibit tells a story of cultural survival, from the ancient villages to the time of cultural disruption and apparent silence, to the enduring power of totem poles today.

Region: Tlingit

The earliest drawing of Tlingit monumental sculpture shows a large standing bear cradling a burial chest that holds the cremated remains of a Tlingit chief. Ancient Tlingit outdoor poles were associated mainly with burials. Indoor houseposts and intricate screens adorn the interiors of the great clan houses. These sculptures tell family stories. Though it was not technically illegal to potlatch in Alaska as it was in Canada between 1885 and 1951, social pressure from missionaries and government agents combined to produce the same effects. As was true of all Northwest Coast tribes in the early 1900s, Tlingit people moved from their large clan houses into single-family dwellings. During the 1930s, the United States government commissioned Tlingit carvers to make totem poles for public parks. The carvers also made many model poles for sale to tourists.

Village: Wrangell

The village of Wrangell grew up around the Russian fur trading post, Fort Wrangell, in the early 1800s. In the early 1800s, Tlingit people, led by Chief Shakes, moved north to Fort Wrangell from Khasitlan to be near the Russian fur-trading post. A dynasty of several chiefs held the name "Shakes." They led the Nanya.áayí clan for more than a century. The Tlingit Nanya.áayí clan derives its crest from the story of the grizzly bear who accompanied the family to the top of a mountain during a great flood. The grizzly bear is honored in many clan treasures, including the Grizzly Bear Screen that once shielded Chief Shakes' private chamber in the Shark House at Khasitlan, Old Wrangell. Sometime in the late 1880s, they brought the house posts and the Grizzly Bear Screen from the old house. A newer Grizzly Bear Screen was made in the late 1800s to replace the old screen brought from Khasitlan. It is now at the Denver Art Museum. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a replica of Chief Shakes' house on Shakes Island, and used the grizzly bear design for the front. Other replica poles were also raised near this house at that time. Tom Ukas was hired by the Civilian Conservation Corps to carve poles in Wrangell in the 1930s. The replica of Shakes' bear mortuary pole on Shakes Island may be his work. In 1985, the Wrangell Native community dedicated four new house posts for Shark House on Shakes Island. The posts were exact replicas of the old house posts carved by Kadyisdu.áxch in the late 1700s. The old posts were taken down and moved to the Wrangell Museum because their situation was increasingly vulnerable in the damp, unheated, and unsecured house. The old posts were meticulously researched and replicated, including portions that had been damaged or destroyed. The major restoration was done by Steve Brown and Tlingit carvers Wayne Price and Will Burkhart, Jr., with the help of Nathan Jackson and Israel Shotridge. The name Kadyisdu.áxch was given to Steve Brown at Celebration '88, in Juneau, Alaska, by the clan descendants of the original carver.

Village: Khasitlan (Old Wrangell)

The artist Kadyisdu.áxch, "One-to-whom-people-will-listen," carved four house posts for Shark House in Khasitlan, the village of Old Wrangell. He was one of the foremost carvers of the Northwest Coast two hundred years ago, and is an inspiration to present day carvers. Kadyisdu.áxch also carved a mortuary pole in this village, depicting a high-ranking man wearing a hat, sitting on a chest. It is known only from photographs taken in the early 1900s, and a replica carved by Bill Holm for the Burke Museum (see Seattle).

Village: Juneau

The town of Juneau...The University of Alaska Southeast recently commissioned an Eagle totem pole to balance a Raven totem pole that was raised in 1990. An interview with some of the carvers can be seen here: To watch the video of the Eagle pole raising see: http://

Village: Gaash (Cape Fox)

In 1899, railroad magnate E. H. Harriman escorted a crew of scientists, artists, and friends on a survey of the Alaskan coast. Their last stop on the trip was at the Tlingit village of Gaash near Cape Fox, AK. There the expedition took a number of clan treasures. Harriman later gave one of two grizzly bear house posts to the young Burke Museum. Taken from the Teikweidi clan's Kaats house, the posts show a bear holding a human in its mouth, a depiction of the story of Kaats, who married a grizzly. In July 2001, along with four other North American museums, the Burke returned clan treasures to the Tlingit people of Cape Fox. This was accomplished with the help of the Harriman Expedition Retraced voyage, sponsored by Smith College, which returned the house posts from the Burke aboard the Clipper Odyssey, to the welcoming crowds on the dock at Ketchikan, Alaska. An emotional and healing ceremony was held both in Ketchikan and at the original village site at Gaash, where the Tlingit, the great-great-granddaughter of E. H. Harriman, and museum representatives honored the ancestors and acknowledged the wrong that had been done. Two new houseposts have been created for the Burke Museum by father and son, Nathan and Stephen Jackson, to replace the two posts that were repatriated. The Cape Fox Corporation donated a cedar log for Nathan Jackson's post. Stephen Jackson's post was cast in epoxy resin. For more information see:

Village: Tongass, AK

In Tongass, Kinninook's pole was raised in honor of Chief-of-all-Women, who drowned in the Nass River while on her way to visit an ailing sister. Her crests include (from the top): Raven with the crescent moon in his beak, a woman holding her frog child, the woman's frog husband, Mink, Raven, a whale with a seal in its mouth, and Raven-at-the-Head-of-the-Nass. A group of Seattle businessmen, sponsored by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Seattle Post Intelligencer, visited Tongass in August, 1899, when most residents were away fishing. They sawed down Kinninook's pole and towed it to Seattle, where it was put up in Pioneer Square, becoming the "Seattle Totem Pole". When witnesses to the theft complained, a grand jury indictment was brought against the collectors. But the case was dismissed after the investigating federal judge had been entertained at Seattle's premier businessmen's club. To silence the public protest, the collectors raised $500 that they sent to Alaska, but this payment never reached the Tongass Tlingits. A large carved sea lion once rode a house ridge in the Tlingit village of Tongass. Elbert F. Blaine and the Rev. J. P. D. Llwyd took the sea lion. "While they were sawing, I noticed a carved seal on a deserted Indian shack back of the totem. I asked the Rev. J.P.D. Llwyd to help me take it down. In crawling up, he slipped and fell into a rank growth of blackberry vines. He was badly scratched in getting out." -Elbert F. Blaine The Burke Museum is planning to return the sea lion to the Taantakwaan ("Sea Lion People") of Tongass.

Village: Saxman

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, some Native artists were hired through the Civilian Conservation Corps to preserve aspects of Native American culture and to restore or replicate culturally important artifacts. In Alaska, this took the form of creating totem parks, places where replicas or restorations of surviving poles were gathered together. One of these parks was set up in the village of Saxman, where many Tlingit people had moved in the migrations of the 1880s. In 1939, the Sun and Raven pole (made by the Tlingit carver Kahctan) was set up as the first pole in the Saxman totem park. It was made for a woman of the Starfish House of the Raven clan, as a memorial to her two sons. At the top is Raven with outstretched wings and a sun-halo. On his chest are the children of the Sun, whom Raven visited during the great flood. In the middle is the face of Fog Woman who brought salmon to the world. At the bottom is the frog who guided Raven to the bottom of the sea

Village: Ketchikan

The Kadjuk pole (also known as Chief Johnson's pole) was raised in Ketchikan in 1901 and restored by Civilian Conservation Corps carvers in the 1930s. It belongs to the Kadjuk House of the Raven clan. By 1989, Tlingit carver Israel Shotridge had created a replica that stands in its place today. At the top of the pole is the fabled bird Kadjuk, "as large as the blue hawk, and living high in the mountains." Below is Raven and his two slaves. Raven's wife, Fog Woman, holds two salmon.

Village: Sitka, AK

In 1901 the Haida Chief Saanaheit of Old Kasaan presented his house frontal pole and four inside house posts to Alaskan Governor James Brady as a gift to the white people of Alaska. These had been raised by Saanaheit’s uncle about seventy years earlier at Old Kasaan. These were erected in 1902 at the site which was to become the Sitka National Historical Park. Brady was later given poles from several other villages in Southeast Alaska that were taken to St. Louis and displayed in front of the Alaska Building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. The poles later went on display at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905 before being returned to Sitka, where they were installed in a government park near Chief Saanaheit’s house poles. Replicas of these poles now stand in the Sitka National Historical Park. See:

Village: Klukwan, AK

Klukwan Village See:

Return to top of page

Region: Nisga'a

The people of the Nass River speak a Tsimshian language closely related to that of their Gitksan neighbors. The Nass River was the location of a major source of eulachon fish, which were prized for their oil. The Haida, Tlingit, and Coast Tsimshian all traveled there to partake of this resource. In the late winter (February through April) large quantities of fish were caught and preserved either by drying and smoking, or by rendering the grease through a process of fermentation and boiling.

Village: Gitlakdamiks, B.C.

Many totem poles were photographed in the Nisga’a village of Gitlakdamiks in the early 20th century. Some of these poles were later destroyed on the advice of a missionary, and so they exist only in photographic form. In 1969, Burke Museum Curator Bill Holm carved a replica of a memorial pole from Gitlakdamiks that no longer survives, based on this photographic record. It now stands outside in front of the Burke Museum. The original Nisga’a pole 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.

Village: Anquidah, BC (Angida)

Angida (nkityah) means “where they rake eulachon.” Eulachon is a small oily fish, known as candle fish,that runs in schools up the river to spawn at certain times of the year. Native people come seasonally to the Nass River to acquire this valuable fish, which is smoked and also rendered for its oil, a condiment used like butter, for dipping dried fish and to put on potatoes and fruit.

Return to top of page

Region: Haida

Huge old-growth red cedar trees of Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), are ideal for carving both totem poles and canoes. Haida poles tell family histories and display inherited crests. Crests depict animals or supernatural beings that identify the owners and are symbols of noble families. In the late 1700s, there were just a few monumental poles in Haida Gwaii. By the end of the 1800s, there were forests of totem poles, largely financed by the wealth acquired through the sea-otter pelt trade. At the same time that the economy was flourishing, smallpox epidemics devastated the Haida people. So many died that the survivors were forced to leave their home villages and gather together in two villages, Skidegate and Massett. All along the coast, First Nations people had to leave the villages that they still consider their true homes. On Haida poles, the figures are often interlocked, the limbs flat and stylized, following the ancient two-dimensional design system known today as formline design.

Village: Da.adans (Dadens)

According to a Haida legend, the first totem pole was carved on q'iis gwaii (Langara Island), in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The earliest known drawing of a totem pole on the Northwest Coast is by John Bartlett. In 1791 he drew one of two poles that stood at the village of Da.adans on q'iis gwaii (now Langara Island, British Columbia). The last pole to stand there was raised before 1878 and displays the crests of the Yahgu’laanas Raven clan: the grizzly bear, the woman in the moon, and Raven with a broken beak.

Village: Howkan, AK

Thomas Skulka's house frontal pole stood in front of several houses in Howkan over the years. A model pole at the Burke Museum closely resembles this original, and perhaps is by the hand of the same carver. The figures (from the top) are an eagle (the crest of Skulka's wife), two watchmen (at the sides), a European man wearing a military uniform, an owl (Skulka's crest), and a bear. Two different stories explain the European figure. One says that this figure ridicules the Russians, because Russians took land and did not pay the Native owners. A second story says this represents a Boston fur trader who took Haida children away and did not compensate the family. Around 1880, John Wallace was commissioned by Moses Koohl-Keet to create a memorial for the deceased head of Brown Bear House in Howkan, Alaska. Wallace carved the original "Single Fin" killer whale monument. A replica of this whale monument now stands in front of the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Village: Sgaang Gwaii (Ninstints)

The Haida village of Sgaang Gwaii (Ninstints) has the largest number of old poles still standing in the world. Most of the poles that still stand there are mortuary poles, with the coffins of deceased chiefs placed in a niche at the top behind a carved panel the represented the crests of the chief. Many Sgaang Gwaii poles were relocated to museums in Vancouver and Victoria in the 20th century. In 1981, the village was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In response to further efforts by the Haida people and other environmentalists to protect the forests and ancient village sites, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve was established in 1986. Today, Haida Watchmen are caretakers at several villages in the Park Reserve.

Village: Hlgaagilda 'llnagaay (Skidegate)

Haida people from many southern Haida villages moved to Skidegate in the late 19th century after smallpox epidemics drastically reduced the population, making life in remote southern villages difficult. Many new poles were erected there in the 1860s and 1870s. By the 1880s, missionaries had arrived and discouraged the carving of new poles, and the potlatch ceremony which accompanied pole raising was made illegal by the Canadian government. Poles were cut down and sold to collectors, and by the early 20th century very few poles remained standing. In 1978, Bill Reid carved a new pole for the community. The pole combined the crests of several old poles that no longer survive. Reid's was the first new pole in Skidegate in more than one hundred years.

Village: Kaay ’llnagaay

In 2001, six new poles were erected near Skidegate at Qay 'llnagaay ("Sea-Lion Town"), the site of the new Haida Heritage Centre. The Kaay 'llnagaay Heritage Centre includes a Welcome Centre, the Bill Reid Teaching Centre, Program Management Centre, Haida Gwaii Museum and a Canoe House. The poles represent the six villages whose people came together to live in Skidegate after the devastating smallpox epidemics of the 1860s. For more information see:

Village: Rad raci7waas (Old Massett)

Haida people from many northern Haida villages moved to Old Massett in the late 19th century after smallpox epidemics drastically reduced the population, making life in remote northern villages difficult. Many new poles were erected there in the 1860s and 1870s. By the 1880s, missionaries had arrived and discouraged the carving of new poles, and the potlatch ceremony which accompanied pole raising was made illegal by the Canadian government. Poles were cut down and sold to collectors, and by the early 20th century very few poles remained standing. The first new pole to go up in Haida Gwaii in the 1900s was carved for the Old Massett community in 1969 by Robert Davidson. Since then, many new poles have been raised in Old Massett.

Village: T'anuu 'llnagaay (Tanu)

Tanu is located in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, which was established in 1986. One of the last poles to be erected in Haida Gwaii in the 1800s was being carved when George Dawson photographed it in 1878. It was a house frontal pole raised by Chief Kitkun. The residents of this village moved north shortly after this, and their descendants now live in Skidegate. Many Tanu poles were relocated to museums in Vancouver and Victoria in the 20th century, and several were returned to Haida Gwaii in the 1970s, and are now on display at the Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre. A pole from Tanu is displayed today in four pieces at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology.

Village: Old Kasaan, AK

During the 17th and 18th centuries, many Haida families migrated north from their homes in Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C.) to Prince of Wales, Dall, and Long Islands in present-day Southeast Alaska. These new village sites were originally Tlingit territory. The name Kasaan is Tlingit, meaning “the top village” or “pretty town.” The Haida who live in Alaska are sometimes called Kaigani Haida, after the village of Kaigani on the southern tip of Dall Island. These Alaskan Haida retain close ties with their southern relatives in British Columbia. In Old Kasaan, two old poles from the early 19th century have been attributed to the Tlingit artist, Kadyisdu.axch, from Khasitlan, indicating that Haida chiefs sometimes hired professional artists from other tribes to carve their poles. In 1903, Chief Saanaheit of Old Kasaan was the first of several Alaskan chiefs to donate poles to the state of Alaska (see Sitka). His uncle’s house frontal pole and four interior house posts were sent to Sitka, where they became part of a totem park, now the Sitka National Historical Park.

Village: Q'una 'llnagaay (Skedans)

Q’una ’llangaay had thirty houses and a population of over 700 people in the early 19th century. When the first photographs were taken of this village at the end of the 19th century, there were over fifty poles standing, and many poles remain in the village today. Some of the poles were removed to museums, including the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C., and some poles that were taken away have now been returned to the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kaay’llnagaay. Many descendants of the people who lived here now live in Skidegate, B.C.

Return to top of page

Region: Coast Tsimshian

The Tsimshian people are comprised of three groups: the Nisga’a of the Nass River, the Gitksan of the Skeena River, and the Coast Tsimshian on the salt water. They carve poles that are erected to memorialize deceased chiefs and mark their territories. Cedar trees in this area are tall and thin, defining the distinctive shape of Tsimshian totem poles. In contrast to the interlocked figures on Haida poles, figures carved on Tsimshian poles are relatively separate, their limbs rounded and naturalistic.

Village: Lax Kw’alaams (Fort Simpson, B.C.)

The Hudson’s Bay Company built a fort near the mouth of the Skeena River in 1834. Tsimshian people from the surrounding area moved to this location and built houses there to be near the trading center at Fort Simpson. The houses of the most powerful chiefs had elaborately painted house fronts as well as memorial poles erected nearby. On Tsimshian and Haida poles, plain sections were grooved to represent basketry hat rings, symbols of wealth and status. The beaver figure at the base of a pole at Lax Kw’alaams was one of Chief Sgagweets’ clan crests.

Village: New Metlakatla, AK

In 1857, William Duncan went to Fort Simpson. There, he converted a group of Tsimshian people to Christianity and in 1862 founded a community in Old Metlakatla, Canada. Following a dispute with government and church, he moved with his community in 1887 to Ta’quan, an old Tlingit village in Alaska, which they renamed New Metlakatla. The only old pole in the village was removed (now in the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka), and Duncan built a new-style village of single-family houses. In the early 1900s, artist Casper Mather maintained Tsimshian carving traditions by making model poles for sale. One of his poles commemorates the end of World War II. Figures (from top) are Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States (with American eagle crest), Winston Churchill of Great Britain (with lion crest), and Josef Stalin of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (with bear crest). Casper Mather was an inspiration to the young artist David Boxley, who went on to raise several poles in New Metlakatla in 1992 and 1994, the first to go up in this Tsimshian village.

Village: Prince Rupert, B.C.

The Canadian government in the 1920s was well aware of the attraction of totem poles for tourists. In 1924 a “totem pole preservation committee” (including the Canadian Superintendent of Indian Affairs, the Canadian Parks Service, and anthropologist Marius Barbeau) undertook the restoration of poles in British Columbia. In the early 1900s, when it was illegal to potlatch in Canada, a few new poles were still being carved. The Canadian government moved the old Tsimshian totem poles away from the fronts of their owners' homes and set them up facing the new Canadian Pacific Railroad line. Many poles were relocated to key positions along the Canadian National Railroad line so they would be visible to tourists from the train. There were special totem pole excursions from Jasper to Prince Rupert, where many Tsimshian and Haida poles had been relocated.

Village: Kitkatla, B.C.

According to tradition, the Kitkatla beach pole rose up out of the sand in a single night, emerging fully carved. The beach location is unusual for a totem pole, but appropriate as the figures on it are all from the sea. One of them is the sea monster Paklekpeel, with ten distinct faces. When an otter fisherman was hunting out at sea one day, a sea monster like a huge person emerged close to him. Its body was covered with ten human faces. When the fisherman returned home, he assumed this as his own original crest, “Ten-faces-across-the-top".

Return to top of page

Region: Gitksan

In the 1920s some of the Gitksan villages on the Skeena River resisted the Canadian government’s efforts to restore and relocate their poles near the Canadian Pacific Railroad line. While restorations were done in Gitwangak (Kitwanga), the chiefs in Gitsegukla and Gitanyow (Kitwancool) refused. In the 1950s, the chiefs of Kitwancool did agree to have three old poles from the village taken to the Royal British Columbia Museum in exchange for newly carved replicas, on the condition that the Museum also publish a history of the village that would acknowledge their land claims (Histories, Territories, and Laws of the Kitwancool, B.C. Provincial Museum, 1959).

Village: Kitwancool, B.C.

The dramatic Hole-in-the-Sky pole guarded the entrance to Haidzemerhs' house in the village of Kitwancool. The pole tells a complex story of the Wild Rice clan, and includes both crest and ancestor figures. For the Wild Rice clan, wolves are the principal crest. Seen on the pole are (from the top) the Migrating Wolf crest, adopted when a child was killed during a legendary migration of the people from the headwaters of the Skeena River; Haidzemerhs’ brother holding a wolf tail; and Split-Bear, a special “dying bear” crest with entrails spilling out and the trailing end eaten by another wolf. The small figures are symbolic of the children of the wolf, who was a benefactor to the ancestors of this tribe. The opening in the pole is called “Place-of-Opening” or “Hole-through-the-Sky.” According to tradition, ladders led to the hole.

Village: Kispiox, B.C.

The Gitksan people divide themselves into four matrilineal clans, Eagle, Fireweed (Killer Whale), Frog (or Raven), and Wolf. Their totem poles display the family histories (crests) of individual families within these groups. At Kispiox, several Fireweed households have poles with Owls and Mountain-ferns, crests of the family of Wawsemlarhae. In the late 1960s, the Totem Pole Restoration Society (a local inititative that preceeded the ’ Ksan School) began to restore poles of the Skeena River, beginning at Kispiox, B.C.

Village: Gitanmaax (Hazelton, B.C.)

The Gitanmaax (’Ksan) School of Northwest Coast Indian Art was founded in 1967 near Hazelton, British Columbia. A number of art teachers came during the 1970s, including Doug Cranmer, Tony Hunt, Bill Holm, Duane Pasco, and Robert Davidson. Some students— Freda Diesing and Doreen Jensen— went on to become teachers themselves. The artists at ’Ksan raised poles, carved masks, produced silk-screen prints, and recorded oral histories of the Gitksan people (Skeena River Tsimshian). Between 1969 and 1971, Poulsbo artist Duane Pasco taught there and in 1970 enlisted the help of Victor Mowatt and Earl Muldoe to carve a pole for the Seattle Center.

Village: Kitwanga, B.C.

The village of Kitwanga, west of Hazelton, B.C., has a population of about 500 people today. The name means “people of the place of rabbits.” It is now a Canadian National Historic Site, famous for the Kitwanga Ta’awdzep (Fort), which has a rich oral history relating to intertribal warfare and a warrior named Nekt (See George F, MacDonald, Kitwanga Fort Report, Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization; 1989).

Return to top of page

Region: Haisla

The Haisla people of Kitamaat and Kitlope speak a Northern Wakashan language related to Heiltsuk and Owekeno. In the nineteenth century there were two divisions of Haisla people, the Kitamaat of Douglas Channel and the Kitlope of Gardner Canal. After the smallpox epidemic of 1862, population loss was particularly great among the Kitlope, and the survivors gradually moved to Kitamaat.

Village: Kitamaat

Two house posts from the Kitamaat area, including Wagyiamias Village, are now at the University of British Columbia Museum in Vancouver, B.C. The human figures on these posts show the close stylistic connection between the Haisla artists and their Tsimshian neighbors to the north.

Village: Kitlope (Misk’usa)

The Haisla people worked from 1991 until 2006 to repatriate a pole that came from Kitlope (Misk'usa) that had been at the National Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm, Sweden since 1929. Two new poles were carved, one exchanged for the old pole in Sweden, and the other was raised at the site where the old pole had originally stood. The old pole was returned from Sweden in 2006. For more information see:

Return to top of page

Region: Heiltsuk (Bella Bella)

The people of Bella Bella speak a Northern Wakashan language called Heiltsuk. They are often lumped together with their northern neighbors, the Haihais, who speak the same language. Like their neighbors, their winter villages had cedar plank houses with vertical wall planks, gabled roofs, double ridgepoles, and carved interior house posts.

Village: Bella Bella (wág?lís?la)

After the desvastating smallpox epidemic of 1862, the Heiltsuk people moved together in McLoughlin Bay to be near the store and mission built in 1880. Methodist missionaries converted many people there, and Bella Bella was considered to be a model Christian village. The missionaries discouraged the carving of totem poles, and photographs of Bella Bella show that the cedar plank houses built there lacked these monumental sculptures.

Return to top of page

Region: Nuxalk

The Nuxalk people speak a Coast Salish language, and are isolated from other Salish-speakers to the south. In the nineteenth century they lived in gable-roofed cedar plank houses. The fronts of these houses were often decorated with painted crest designs, representing the animal form in which the first ancestors descended to earth. Some houses had carved house frontal poles in the late nineteenth century that displayed the family’s crests in three-dimensional form.

Village: Kimsquit (qwumkwuts)

This village had no exterior house frontal poles or free-standing poles. The house fronts were decorated with 2-dimensional paintings depicting crest animals. The gable roofs of some of the houses in this village are obscured by a painted false façade, unqiue to the Nuxalk.

Village: Bella Coola

The old Bella Coola village had several house frontal poles, some serving as the doorways to the houses. Most remarkable is the house of Chief Clelamen, who died in 1893. The house has five peaks, which represented Mount Nusqlst. A sign on the front of the house announced that Chief Clelamen gave away goods valued at $4,000 at his eighth potlatch. Attached to the house is a carved figure of a man breaking a stone and mountain goats protruding out of a gable window. A replica of this house has been constructed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec.

Village: Talio

In the village of Talio, Chief Hemas’ Raven House had a frontal pole with a long raven’s beak and a beaver figure above it. The pole is said to have been carved by Skyuswalas of Talio. This pole was collected by Charles F. Newcombe in 1913, and is now in the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C.

Return to top of page

Region: Owekeno

The Owekeno people, from the head of Rivers Inlet, speak a Northern Wakashan language, Oowekyla, closely related to Heiltsuk. They are sometimes lumped together under the name Heiltsuk, but the Owekeno social system more closely resembles that of their Kwakwaka’wakw neighbors to the south. Like their neighbors, their winter villages had cedar plank houses with vertical wall planks, gabled roofs, double ridgepoles, and carved interior house posts.

Village: Rivers Inlet

Several winter villages were located on Oowekeeno Lake and Fitz Hugh Sound, as well as Rivers Inlet. Following the smallpox epidemic of 1862, and the growth of the commercial salmon canning and logging industries, people shifted into central villages, clustered at the head of Rivers Inlet, l?xwl?gwís, Kítit, Oowekeeno, and Qwáxsawa. Resisting the influence of Methodist missionaries, the Oowekeeno people carved totem poles in the late 19th century, a few of which were recorded in photographs.

Village: Katit

A spectacular house frontal pole that stood in the village of Katit at the end of the 19th century, displayed a long-beaked bird. The style of carving created here combined some stylistic features of the Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Nuxalk neighbors. At the end of the 19th century, Katit village on the Wannock River, became a center of logging and canning industries, with over fourteen salmon canneries. The last of these canneries closed in the 1950s with the diminishing sockeye salmon population.

Return to top of page

Region: Kwakwaka’Wakw

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that totem poles with many figures were carved in this region. When poles were raised, they were traditionally accompanied by a potlatch ceremony. In 1885, the Canadian government prohibited this ceremony. The potlatch—which validates the status of high-ranking families—was practiced in secret until the anti-potlatch law was dropped in 1951. During this period, Kwakwaka’wakw families continued to raise poles in their remote villages, despite the law. While the Kwakwaka’wakw people were carrying on potlatch traditions secretly in the early 20th century, many artists such as Charley James, Arthur Shaughnessy, Willie Seaweed, and Mungo Martin kept the carving traditions active. Artists made ceremonial masks for their own use, model totem poles for sale, and a few full-sized poles erected in Christian cemeteries.

Village: Xwalkw

When the Vancouver Expedition arrived at the east side of Vancouver Island in 1792, they observed a village with painted house fronts, but no free-standing totem poles, at the mouth of the Nimpkish River. The people of Xwalkw moved to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island at the end of the 19th century to be near the fish saltery and school there.

Village: Alert Bay (‘Yalis)

Kwakwaka’wakw poles made in the late 1800s are the most flamboyant on the coast. Birds perch on top, with spread wings and projecting beaks. Colors are bright—white, orange, green, and yellow join the usual black, red, and blue-green. The Kwakwaka’wakw-style pole with outstretched thunderbird wings has been widely imitated. By the late 1800s, this eye-catching type of pole was common in Kwakwaka’wakw country and had become an icon of Native peoples recognized around the world.

Village: Gwa’yasdam's

For three years in Gwa’yasdam’s village on Gilford Island, a Dzunuk’wa figure faced down the beach at 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. A Dzunuk’wa is a fearsome and powerful, sleepy and gullible creature. Some people equate her with Sasquatch (Bigfoot) the shy, hairy giant of the forests. To the Kwakwaka’wakw she is the source of great wealth, and the privilege of representing her in carving and performance is a prized heritage of some chiefs. (For more information, see Seattle)

Village: Koskimo

The village of Koskimo is located in the Quatsino area on the Northwest Coast of Vancouver Island, B.C. Quatsino means people of the outside or out around the cape (Cape Scott), distinguishing them from the other Kwakwaka’wakw people who lived on the northeast side of Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland. A distinctive style of carving developed in this area, combining some of the features of both the Nuu-chah-nulth to the south and the Kwakwaka’wakw to the east.

Return to top of page

Region: Nuu-Chah-Nulth

High-ranking Nuu-chah-nulth chiefs on the west coast of Vancouver Island had the right to display larger-than-life human figures as house posts. These held up the roofs of cedar plank houses, large communal structures where extended families lived in winter. In the late 1800s, Nuu-chah-nulth carvers began to create free-standing totem poles telling family stories. Large free-standing human figures also faced the water and stretched their arms in a gesture of welcome to greet and honor guests as they arrived by canoe.

Village: Yuquot

In the late 1700s, Chief Maquinna’s house at Yuquot, Nootka Sound, had carved interior house posts, but no carved poles outside. In the late 1800s, Nuu-chah-nulth carvers began to create free-standing totem poles telling family stories. Around 1877 Captain Jack raised a free-standing pole at Yuquot at the time of his marriage to a Muchalat woman. The figures represent crests from both Captain Jack’s and his wife’s families, including the Thunderbird and Whale, Lightning Serpent, Bear, Owl, King of the Sea, Snake, Sea Otter, Wolf, and a wealth figure. Inside Captain Jack’s house at Yuquot, two house posts also depicted figures relating to this marriage. Tim Paul and Ki-di-in carved replicas of the house posts that were raised in the church at Yuquot, which is now an interpretive centre.

Village: Opitsat, Meares Island

In the late 1900s, First Nations artists used their skills in support of political efforts—part of the struggle to maintain tribal sovereignty and land rights in British Columbia. A welcome figure carved by Tla-o-qui-aht artist Hyacinth Joe David was the focal point of a successful campaign to prevent the clear-cutting of Meares Island, British Columbia. This figure now stands outside the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C.

Return to top of page

Region: Makah

The Makah people are closely related to their northern Nuu-chah-nulth neighbors by language and culture, as well as family ties. Evidence of their early carving traditions survives in the artifacts preserved from Ozette village at the Makah Cultural and Research Center. While no free-standing totem poles were carved in ancient times, large carved panels decorated the interior walls of houses, depicting the whales, wolves, thunderbirds, and lightning serpents, all representing aspects of their whaling culture. A carver named Young Doctor made several poles ca. 1900 that are now at the Makah Cultural and Research Center:

Village: Neah Bay (di.ya.)

In 1930, Makah leader Charlie Swan was given the Big Man figure from Annie Williams, daughter of Atlieu (Tla-o-qui-aht). It was taken to Neah Bay, Washington, and used to welcome guests at feasts. It could pivot, and the arms could be raised and lowered. Swan's daughter, Helma Swan Ward, remembered that the figure also had worn a tunic. A new cattail tunic was made for this figure by Makah weaver, Melissa Peterson, in 2002. The original head of this figure was missing when it came to the Burke Museum, and a replica was carved by Steve Brown to replace it, based on a photograph of the original.

Return to top of page

Region: Quileute

Like their Coast Salish neighbors, the Quileute people carved images representing ancestors or personal spirit helpers in the 1800s. These figures stood outdoors as grave monuments, or inside as interior house posts.

Village: La Push

Since ancient times, Northwest Coast artists have worked for tribes other than their own. Recently, the Quileute tribe commissioned a large pole from David R. Boxley, an Alaskan Tsimshian artist. The pole combines aspects of Quileute and Tsimshian style to tell a Quileute story. The thunderbird and whale are traditional to the Quileute whaling culture. The wolf at the bottom of the pole represents elders who pass their traditions along to the younger generation (the small human).

Return to top of page

Region: Coast Salish

Traditionally, Coast Salish people carved images representing ancestors or personal spirit helpers. These figures stood outdoors as grave monuments, or inside as interior house posts. Single Salish figures were not totem poles in the true sense of the word (free-standing columns with many figures). Today, very few of these old figures have survived. In the early 1900s, William Shelton, a Snohomish leader, began making free-standing multiple-figure poles depicting Salish stories, thereby creating a new tradition in Coast Salish art. In the traditional Coast Salish religion, spiritual power is obtained through carefully maintained relationships with spirit beings. As is customary, the spiritual meaning of the art is often kept secret.

Village: I'einis

An 1847 watercolor painting by Paul Kane shows a large carved human figure as it stood on the beach in front of the pallisaded S'Klallam village of I'einis (present day Port Angeles, WA). Kane illustrates a battle between the S'Klallams and the Makahs that occurred in this place a few months before his visit. Situated near a group of grave boxes, this figure may represent an ancestor or a guardian spirit. A human figure in the Burke Museum's collection may have functioned in a similar way.

Village: Jamestown S'Klallam

Two new poles were recently raised by the Jamestown S'Klallam community (near Sequim, WA). They were designed by Dale Faulstich, and carved by Dale Faulstich, Nathan Gilles, and Edward Charles.

Village: Tulalip Reservation

Chief William Shelton was an important Snohomish leader during the early 1900s. Shelton carved free-standing poles that told Salish stories, thereby creating a new tradition in Salish art. A Shelton pole, funded by Washington school children, has stood at the State Capitol Building in Olympia since 1940.

Village: Musqueam Reserve, B.C.

Today, Coast Salish carvers create traditional-style house posts, as well as new forms. Susan Point, one of the few female carvers on the Coast, has been commissioned to produce many public sculptures. In 1997 she made a house post that was inspired by a 19th century monument to the Musqueam warrior Capilano. It stands today in front of the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, B.C., which is on traditional Musqueam land. It commemorates the 100th anniversary of banking in British Columbia.

Village: Vancouver, B.C.

In the 1950s, the University of British Columbia launched a totem pole restoration project. Mungo Martin restored old totem poles and carved replicas for totem parks at the major museums in Vancouver and Victoria. Martin also carved replica poles as part of a collaboration with the people of Kitwancool village. The old poles were purchased and moved to museums for preservation, while replica poles were given back to the Kitwancool community.

Village: Blake Island

Today, many Nuu-chah-nulth poles still honor family members, as they did in the past, though they may be located away from their ancestral villages. In 1998, the David family raised a traditional pole for parents Hyacinth and Winifred. The pole is on Blake Island in Coast Salish country in Puget Sound, at Tillicum Village, the resort where the family had worked during the 1960s and 1970s. The figures on the pole are portraits of the parents with the wolf, a family crest.

Village: Seattle

A group of Seattle businessmen, sponsored by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Seattle Post Intelligencer, visited Tongass, Alaska, in August, 1899, when most residents were away fishing. They sawed down Kinninook's pole and towed it to Seattle, where it was put up in Pioneer Square, becoming the "Seattle Totem Pole". When witnesses to the theft complained, a grand jury indictment was brought against the collectors. But the case was dismissed after the investigating federal judge had been entertained at Seattle's premier businessmen's club. To silence the public protest, the collectors raised $500 that they sent to Alaska, but this payment never reached the Tongass Tlingits. In 1938, the so-called "Seattle Totem Pole" was damaged by arson. Civilian Conservation Corps-employed Tlingit carvers, led by Charles Brown, made a replica in 1940 that still stands today at the corner of First and Yesler in Seattle's Pioneer Square. After he became curator of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum in 1968, Bill Holm, now Curator Emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art, created replicas of four poles and a whale monument, known only from old photographs and a few fragments. One of these is a replica of the Gwa'yasdam's Dzunuk'wa ridicule pole, depicting the Wild Woman of the Woods. Three other pole replicas are Haida from Xaina, Tlingit from Khasitlan, and Nisga'a from Gitlakdamiks. Holm carved the poles on the beach on Lopez Island. In 1972 with the help of Burke Museum staff members, he rafted them across Puget Sound. In 1972, Holm carved a replica of the "Single Fin" whale monument from the Haida village of Howkan, based on old photos and the fin itself, which is now part of the Burke Museum's collection. The replica whale is now in front of the Burke Museum in Seattle, and inspired the whale logo designed by Bill Holm for the Burke Museum and the Bill Holm Center. In the early 1970s, Chief Scow's Raven House posts carved by Arthur Shaughnessy were moved from Gwa'yasdam's to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, where a replica house (based on another of Chief Scow's houses, the Sea Monster House) was built around them. They are now at the Seattle Art Museum, and the replica Sea Monster House is at the Burke Museum.

Return to top of page

Region: Chinookan

In the early 1800s Chinookan-speaking people lived along the lower Columbia River in gable-roofed cedar plank houses. The houses of the most important chiefs had house posts carved in human form that supported the roof beams. These figures probably represented an ancestor or spirit helper of the owner. None of these posts have survived to the present day, and we know them only from early descriptions and drawings such as one made by Paul Kane when visiting a house near the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver.

Village: Fort Vancouver

Paul Kane, a Canadian artist who traveled to the Northwest Coast in 1846-7, sketched the interior of a Chinookan lodge near Fort Vancouver. It shows a central house post carved in human form, with a carved panel at the left, also with an abstracted human form. Cattail leaf mats serve as room dividers and mats on the cedar plank floor. These figures probably represented ancestors and spirit helpers of the owner of the house.

Village: Fort Astoria

Chief Concomly (qánqmli) was the most powerful chief on the Lower Columbia in the early 1800s. Three of his daughters were married to white fur traders, Duncan McDougall, Alexander Mackenzie, and Archibald McDonald, securing his control of the fur trade in this area. His grave, near Fort Astoria, had carved vertical panels, supporting the horizonal grave platform, decorated with a humanoid figure with antlers, concentric circles, and other geometric forms. This elaborate display indicates his high status. Graves such this are elaborations of the more common practice on the southern Northwest Coast of burying people in canoes raised up above the ground.

Return to top of page