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Totem Poles: Legacy of Native Americans and Tribal Customs

I'm a counselor and freelance writer with years of online writing experience. My work covers a large range of topics.

A variety of totem poles standing upright together.

A variety of totem poles standing upright together.

What Is a Totem Pole?

Majestic and magnificent, American Indian totem poles stood tall along the Native American landscape. They became a lasting legacy of the first people who lived long ago on the North American continent.

The Pacific Northwest is the only area Native American totem poles have been found. Totem poles tell a story of the rich culture of their creators. You can see many totem poles in museums across the United States.

These tall poles tell a special story about the individual it was commissioned for, including stories about their ancestors. Everything carved on the pole had a special meaning. Often, the owner had to explain their story for the totem pole to be appreciated fully.

For example, if an eagle was put on the pole it could mean that the owner’s ancestry had something to do with an eagle, he could have had a spiritual experience with an eagle, or he could have recently encountered an eagle. There is always a story attached to the inanimate objects that are used on the totem poles.

The first caucasian to ever see a totem pole in American was Captain James Cook in 1778.

Do Totem Poles Have Religious Significance?

According to Wikipedia, “The word totem is derived from the Ojibwe word odoodem, – his kinship group.” It is an anthropological word that references the idea that a particular animal is the ancestor of a kin-people. They treat that animal with respect and special care, and never eat or hunt it.

These are some important characteristics of authentic totem poles:

  • They were carved from wood.
  • They were placed in a room in the tent.
  • If they were carried, it was only done by men.
  • Some stayed outside the tent to show the status of the people who resided in the tent.
  • All are hand-carved.
  • They have carved artwork of humans, animals and mythical creatures.
  • They have no religious significance.

What Is the Purpose of Totem Poles?

They were created to tell a legend, a myth or a story. They were also built to commemorate special events such as births and marriages and other important lifecycle events.

Tribal leaders would order a pole to be carved for six main reasons:

  1. Family poles: Carved to display family lineage, the tribal history, and the social standing of the Native American family.
  2. Shame poles: Targeted those who failed in some way, whether it was to repay a debt, or because of some unpleasant action on their part. If someone was disgraced by the tribe, a shame pole was commissioned by the chief to expose their wrongdoing. The shame pole would only be removed after the person paid a pre-agreed price or find another way to make peace. The shame pole was very effective.
  3. Potlach poles: Celebrated momentous occasions, festivals, and commemorate special events. These poles were generally the largest of all the totem poles.
  4. Mortuary poles: Used as a way to honor a chief who died. The story of the head of the tribe would be carved into the wooden pole to portray the accomplishments of the chief. It was customary for people who were leaders and high-ranking parts of the tribe to be cremated after they died. Their ashes were placed in a hollow part at the top of the totem pole. As Native Americans converted to Christianity, grave marker poles became more commonplace as cremating decreased.
  5. Memorial poles: Honored the life of someone important in the tribe.

How Are Totem Poles Made?

Usually, a totem pole was commissioned by the tribal chief. The carver would first design the totem pole on paper. This would enable them to know the dimensions of the log they needed.

The bark would be stripped; the first one to three inches of the log, known as the saproot, is removed and the log is set out to dry.

A dry log becomes easy to carve. Usually, totem poles are made up of a single log. Separate logs may have been added to create fins and beaks and teeth, etc.

The entire pole was never completely painted. They only painted the details that highlighted the character of the object. Just to create the paint alone was labor-intensive.

A female member of the tribe would chew salmon eggs and then spit them in a bowl to create a base for the oil-based paint. Powders were mixed in to make the four main colors that were used on the totem poles:

  • White-colored paint came from clamshells.
  • Black was made from charcoal.
  • Turquoise came from copper oxide.
  • Red was made from iron ore.

The carver used tools made from wood, bone, animal antlers and animal teeth, bones and shells. As Caucasians settled on their lands, the American Indians discovered the metals the settlers brought with them. With these metals, the carvers made stronger tools to create the images on the totem poles.

The totem poles were created by an expert carver and his apprentices. The expert would carve the lower 10 feet of the pole because that was eye level. His intricacies and expertise could be closely examined. The less experienced apprentices would carve the higher part.

Gyáa'aang, or "A Man Stands Up Straight"

The red cedar poles used in making family totem poles were called Gyáa'aang by the people of southeastern Alaska and coastal British Columbia. This language is known as Haida. The translation for the word Gyáa'aang means "a man stands up straight." Oral history from these people indicates creating totem poles is an ancient tradition.

Most totem poles that once decorated the territories in the Pacific Northwest are gone. In the latter part of the 1800’s, many tribes stopped carving these monumental poles because Canada made the ceremonies illegal. Those who did make the poles, did so in secret.

As time went on Native Indians moved into single family wood houses and no longer made these towering monuments to their ancestry. The poles that were left were either taken away, sold to collectors and museums, or chopped down or left to decay.

The Pacific Northwest Area Where Totem Poles Existed

Totem Poles See a Revival

Tourists who would see the poles marveled at the artwork and design and totem poles began to be looked at as powerful symbols of the area. In the 1880s and 90s, people would come by steamboats to view the totem poles. Native artists started to carve smaller models as souvenirs for these tourists.

Exhibitions began to be held and the existing full-sized totem poles were brought on display to places in 1876, such as the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and other places throughout the U.S. In 1910, a Totem Park was established in Sitka, Alaska as a national monument.

In the 1930s the Federal Government of the United States created several more Totem Parks in southeast Alaska. They hired native carvers to replicate some totem poles. In 1951, Canada dropped the law banning the celebration of putting up totem poles.

In Vancouver, Victoria, and British Columbia, Canada hired native carvers to make new totem poles for the totem parks they set up. Today, you can still find native people making totem poles to celebrate their relatives, family histories, and momentous celebrations.

Interesting Info

A little bit of trivia:

A shame pole still exists in Saxman, Alaska to shame the United States government into paying back a northwest tribe for the cost of slaves who were freed when the Emancipation Proclamation was established.

Did you know?

Totem poles are the most expensive Native American pieces of art in existence

Would you believe it? There is no such thing as “low man on the totem pole.”

Some totem poles were created to represent that the figures on top were of greater importance. Some poles were designed where the more important figures were at the bottom or the middle because that was the part most often looked at.

If you are looking to buy a totem pole, know your prices:

A hand-carved totem pole will sell for more than $500 per foot. To be an authentic piece, the totem pole needs to pass certain tests. it must be created by a trained carver from the Pacific Coast; it must have been blessed by the elders or natives who are part of the totem pole tradition. They must never have been carved with a chain saw. It must be hand-carved.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on August 27, 2014:

I enjoyed learning about the different types on totem poles--something I've been wondering about for along time. Thanks

phong on May 26, 2013:

very good info

rosie98 on May 14, 2013:

I am doing a project on Totem Poles and this was very helpful so thank you very much!

kkrock10 on May 13, 2013:

coool but i have a question. how amny heads are on a typical totem pole?

tyana on November 21, 2012:

that was very good facts keep it up!

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on June 24, 2012:

My pleasure toknowinfo. This hub is not heavy going, yet contains plenty of info. As an overall package - succinct writing, clear presentation and illustrations - I had no problem at all including this page in my review.

toknowinfo (author) on June 23, 2012:

Hi Greensleeves, Thank you very much for promoting my hub on your review page. I look forward to reading it. I appreciate your comments and I hope to be rated highly by more of your reviews.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on June 20, 2012:

Hi toknowinfo. I really like this page because although fairly light in tone it gives a very comprehensive summary of all the main aspects of totem pole history, design and significance. For these reasons I am promoting the page in a review hub I have just published which links to ten of the best articles on native American culture on this site.

toknowinfo (author) on April 27, 2011:

Hi Susan, I am glad you shared your comments. Totem Poles are unassuming in the things they signify and in what you would think they cost.

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on April 27, 2011:

Very interesting hub. I have always lived close to reservations most of my life and have seen some magnificent Totem Poles. Never realized the cost of them though.

toknowinfo (author) on April 11, 2011:

Hi Simone, Thanks for stopping by. So you like the shame pole idea. Maybe instead of flagging we can use a shame pole (LOL)

toknowinfo (author) on April 11, 2011:

Hi Fay, Glad you liked the article, and that you learned a few things. Thanks for the up ratings.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 11, 2011:

Great Hub! And I had NO IDEA that there was such a thing as a shame pole!! LOL!!! "For you, we are making A SHAAAAAME POOOLEEE!!!" O__________O *gasp*

Fay Paxton on April 11, 2011:

I find totem poles to be absolutely fascinating, but always thought they had some kind of religious meaning. Your excellent article dispelled a few myths. Thanks.

voted up/awesome

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi Ian, That is some image you created. I will be looking for a poem about it soon from you.

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on April 10, 2011:

Interesting hub, as usual, TKI. The statement: "They must never have been carved with a chain saw. It must be hand carved." made me laugh.

Imagine how awful something like that would be. A production line of Native American men whacking out several totem poles per day, and some poor Native American women at the other end of the assembly line chewing salmon eggs like mad to make the paint base and never catching up.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi Kathi, It is nice to see you again. It is hard to imagine they couldn't appreciate the beauty and artwork of the American Indians. What we did to the totem poles, we did to the people. It think it is sad. At least we still have some of their culture, and if you get an opportunity to talk to American Indian and learn more about their beliefs, you will see there is so much to learn from them.

Kathi Mirto from Fennville on April 10, 2011:

Very interesting, You dispelled a few myths and that's always great! I'm glad they are making a comeback. It's hard to imagine they were ever discarded and disregarded.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi Tom, Thanks for stopping by and your wonderful up rating. I am glad you enjoyed learning about totem poles. Have a great week also. Looking forward to seeing you soon.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi AA, It is nice to know that you appreciate American Indian artwork and totem poles. Thanks for stopping by and for your comments.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi Dah, Glad you looked into the totem poles in Minnesota.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on April 10, 2011:

Hi toknowinfo, great in depth and informative history of Totem Poles, very fascinating and interesting read !

Awesome and up !!!

Have a great week my friend !

Augustine A Zavala from Texas on April 10, 2011:

I love Haida and Salish artwork and totems. I had designed a tatto using both styles, still have the flash somewhere in my house. Thank you for sharing.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on April 10, 2011:


You are right.I have seen totem poles most of my life. While they may not be native to the mid west they are certainly around.a quick search of the internet shows that there are modern one being made and sold.Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I never really thought to question the authenticity.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi Amillar, Glad you learned so much. Thanks for the up rating and your kind comments.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi Bobbi, American Indian culture is very beautiful. They had so much to teach us and it is lost. I think the world would be so much better a place if they would have won instead of the white man. Thanks for reading, commenting and your kind words.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi Dah, I am glad that this hub made you think about things that we sometimes become oblivious to. I am curious about the totem poles in Minnesota. Either they were brought there for display, or they are different kinds of totem poles. The totem poles I talk about in this hub only come from the Pacific Northwest. Trees were usually not as tall in other areas of the U.S. to create the same height totem poles.

amillar from Scotland, UK on April 10, 2011:

I didn't know that totem poles weren't discovered until as late as 1778, or that they 'have no religious meaning'.

As usual there’s a lot of useful information here.

Up and useful.

BobbiRant from New York on April 10, 2011:

Totem poles are so beautiful and they show that when Europeans thought of the Indians as uncivilized, they were dead wrong. Creativeness is not uncivilized, but many will label a culture badly because it is not understood. Beautiful write.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on April 10, 2011:

It seems that Totem Poles have always been sort of a part of the landscape in Minnesota where I grew up.Like local customs we absorb some of the lore without conscious thought. Very nice hub.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

HiPdog, Thanks for stopping by and for the kind comments.

toknowinfo (author) on April 10, 2011:

Hi Schoolmarm, It is nice to see you again. Glad you learned a thing or to and enjoyed the info. on April 10, 2011:

very original and informative. Thanks Toknowinfo

schoolmarm from Florida on April 09, 2011:

What a very interesting hub! I had no idea that the women had to chew salmon eggs for the paint. I really enjoyed this information. Thanks!

toknowinfo (author) on April 09, 2011:

Hi Ingeria, You are right, there are other places in the world that have totem poles, but they would not be made by American Indians. Thank you for sharing your experience of seeing totem poles in Canada. It must be awesome. I appreciate your kind comments.

toknowinfo (author) on April 09, 2011:

Hi RP, To think that the hardest part of painting the totem pole was creating the paint. And creating the paint was the only part women could participate in creating the totem poles. (maybe they helped choose the colors). Thanks for stopping by and reading.

Ingenira on April 09, 2011:

I often encounter these totem poles during my stay in Canada. We also have something similar here in Borneo Island (Sarawak state of Malaysia).

Now that I know that it comes with background story, I wish they placed a small info board beside the totem to tell the story. That'd certainly help people to appreciate these historical pole more.

Another great hub !

P/S, I see your hub score escalating for the past few weeks. Congrates, I am happy for you. You certainly deserve it, your articles are of great quality ! Well done !

rpalulis from NY on April 09, 2011:

Wow very interesting history on the Totem Pole, its amazing the craftsmen with what little they had to work with. I was shocked to learn how they made paint, very cool. Great hub!

toknowinfo (author) on April 09, 2011:

Hi Will, I am always happy to see you. I am glad you enjoy this hub. Thanks for your kind words.

toknowinfo (author) on April 09, 2011:

Hi Kitty, I am glad you enjoyed this hub. There is such a richness to the ways of the American Indians. (I refer to them as American Indians, because the American Indian I met told me that "his people" preferred that to Native Americans)Thank you for your kind words and your contribution.

toknowinfo (author) on April 09, 2011:

Hi LoraKay, I think it is very cool, that you are part Cherokee. The American Indian culture and philosophy is very beautiful. I am glad you stopped by. Thank you very much for the high ratings.

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on April 09, 2011:

Great stuff! Very enjoyable reading.

toknowinfo (author) on April 09, 2011:

Hi Ment, Thanks for visiting and commenting. It is always nice to have your presence in the comment section.

toknowinfo (author) on April 09, 2011:

Hi Nan, Totem are really interesting. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

Kitty Fields from Summerland on April 09, 2011:

great hub, toknowinfo! i've always found native american history and culture fascinating and this hub really played into that interest. voted up and awesome. i had no idea what the meaning of the totem pole is, so awesome job!

LoraKayAlexander on April 09, 2011:

Awwwwww I love totem Poles. They have always fascinated me!

My Great Grnadmother is Cherokee. I love the spirit. Thank you for sharing. I voted up/useful/awesome. Keep up the good work.

Mentalist acer from A Voice in your Mind! on April 09, 2011:

Native American Books.;)

Nan Mynatt on April 09, 2011:

Great hub, and thanks for clearifing the totem poles, what they really mean.