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[Detail] Chilkat dancers, Alaska, 1895

Folklore | Museum Exhibit | Crafts | Totem Poles | Creative Writing

Totem Poles

Perhaps the most iconic of Native-American arts and crafts is the totem pole. However, these columns that have come to symbolize Native Americans in general, were originally found only in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, many of the popular representations of totem poles are based on just one or two original poles from this region. This and other information about the meaning of totem poles and their use within and without the Northwest is available in Dr. Robin K. Wright's essay, "Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest." (external link) Search on totem pole for over 200 photographs reflecting the arts of Native Americans of Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington.

  • What are the different kinds of totem poles and what tribes made them?
  • Why did the use and size of totem poles increase in the 19th century?
  • Why did the creation of totem poles all but cease at the end of the 19th century?
  • Why do you think that Dr. Wright included "The Story of North Island" in her essay?
  • Why are few poles still in their original locations? What is the difference between viewing a pole in its original location and in some other location?
  • Why is it important to know the history of a pole?
  • How have people used totem poles in the 20th century? Have these uses changed or expanded the meaning of totem poles?

In her essay, Dr. Wright observes:

"Only the best artists were commissioned to carve the monumental heraldic poles that were placed in front of and inside northern Northwest Coast houses proclaiming the identity, status, and history of the noble people who owned them."

("The Story of North Island, Part 1" (external link) of "Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest" (external link))

While the images on some poles reflect themes, many represent ancestors and supernatural beings associated with ancestors. Taken together, these symbols can tell stories.

Use symbols representing your own family and its stories to decorate an object that is meaningful to your family, such as the cover of a photo album, or a box that holds keepsakes.

  • What sorts of objects in your room or house convey the identity, status or history of yourself or your family?
  • How else do people convey this information?