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What is a Totem Pole?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 16, 2024
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A totem pole is a post which is carved and painted with an assortment of symbolic figures, and is one of the most distinctive and famous forms of Native American artwork. Totem poles appear to be native to the coastal regions of northwestern North America, appearing in places like British Columbia, Washington, and Alaska. These striking works of art attracted a great deal of attention among European explorers in North America in the 1800s, and a number of misconceptions surround the totem pole and its history.

Numerous tribes have their own versions of totem poles. In many tribes, specific designs belong to particular families, with the totem pole serving as a family crest. A totem pole can also be used to tell a story, using depictions of figures from mythology, or to provide information about a specific location. Totem poles may mark homes, graves, entry passages, and other sites of interest. They are not religious icons, contrary to the belief of some early visitors to the Northwest, although they may contain mythical or religious elements. The arrangement of elements on a totem pole is also not necessarily an indicator of status, with some cultures putting high-ranking figures on the bottom, while others stick with the middle or the top.

Cedar is the traditional wood for totem poles, and usually the carver uses a solid cedar log. Some people have suggested that totem poles were constructed in response to European influences, pointing to the relative lack of pre-1800s totem poles. However, it's more likely that older totem poles rotted away in the humid climate of the Pacific Northwest, especially given the oral histories which clearly document the existence of totem poles well before the arrival of Europeans. The Europeans certainly provided more tools and pigments to use in the construction of totem poles, contributing to an explosion of these carved sculptures in North America.

After a totem pole is carved and painted, it is erected in a ceremony called a potlatch. Potlatches include dancing, singing, and eating to celebrate the construction and establishment of the totem pole. The celebration might also commemorate the event which the totem pole has been commissioned for, such as the establishment of a new community lodge or the burial of a noted tribal elder.

One interesting version of the totem pole is the shame pole, a type of totem pole which is designed to mock or humiliate someone. Shame poles have been erected for a variety of reasons throughout history, ranging from illegal land grabs to embarrassing failures on the hunt. Native Americans in Alaska even built a shame pole which featured the leaders of the Exxon company after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon143602 — On Jan 17, 2011

There is a circuit called "Totem pole" circuit in "Transistor-Transistor logic"(TTL circuit). How the term "Totem pole" came to be attached with this circuit is not known. --N.Srikanta.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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