What Are Totem Poles?

By | September 17, 2019

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Source: (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Everybody thinks they know what a totem pole is, but in actuality, few fully understand its origin, symbolism, social importance, and how it still represents the old conflict of colonizers versus indigenous people.

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From left to right, the One-Legged Fisherman pole, the Raven pole, and the Killer Whale pole in Wrangell, Alaska. Source: (Wikipedia)

A Symbol of Prestige and Heritage

Totem poles were and are created by Pacific Northwest Native Americans ranging from Vancouver Island to Alaska. These tribes include among others the Haida, Tlingits, Bella Coolas, and Kwakuitls. Totem poles are usually crafted of red cedar which was ubiquitous in the region. On the cedar, craftsmen carve images of animals, family crests, clan crests, or some combination. Each one of these figures can symbolize a particular clan’s power and lineage. Salmon, frogs, bears, eagles, orcas, and the mystical thunderbird are among the various motifs used to decorate a totem pole.