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Carving Design Types and Meanings

Types, Colors, Carvings, Tribes and Clans

The animals and other carved figures of the pole symbolize the clan's history, ancestry, mythology, rights and privileges of the family who erected the pole.

Stories and meanings of totem poles were shared orally with owners of the pole, the carver, family members and whomever else the owner chose to share. Because there was no written record or history the meanings of many totem poles cannot be translated or deciphered.

There are several types of totem poles:

  • Crest Totem Poles, Heraldic Poles, History Poles
    Crest Totem Poles generally are part of the house itself. These poles convey the family's ancestry, kinship, family, unity, accomplishments, adventures, traditions, and spirit ancestors and are decorated with emblems particular to the clan.
  • Story-telling Totem Poles, Ridicule or Humor Poles, History Poles, Legend Poles, Potlatch Poles
    These story-telling types of totem poles are designed to preserve history, declare or ridicule a wrongful act inflicted upon the clan such as a bad debt, or celebrate a family event such as a wedding, birth, festival, etc. Visual humor was sometimes added to a pole if the carvers felt they were not being treated fairly, insulted or not paid. These little bits of humor show up as upside-down faces, naked figures or faces in ears, bellybuttons or being squished beneath a large figure. Today humor is inserted intentionally, just for fun.
  • Mortuary Totem Poles, Burial Poles and Memorial Poles
    These totem poles are created to honor a deceased person and tell their story. Usually these types of poles have only one figure carved to represent the person who has died. Many mortuary poles have a compartment in the back to hold cremated ashes of the deceased person.
  • House Frontal Poles and Indoor House Posts
    These poles and posts support main house structures such as walls and roof and are decorated with clan emblems.

Authentic Totem Poles and Non-Authentic Poles

Authentic totem poles are those carved by sanctioned carvers who follow the old rules of traditional symbols, stories and family crests. An authentic pole is created through tradition and official clan or tribal ceremonies which combine to make a pole authentic.

The lifespan of a totem pole is about 100 years. Many are moved to protective environment such as museums and restored or replicated.

Contrary to the popular belief, the "low man on the totem pole" is the most important figure. Totem poles are read from bottom to top. Because the bottom figure is the one people see first, the most expert or chief carvers would take care of the bottom figures and allow apprentices and inexperienced carver take care of the middle and top portions.

Paper Totem Poles, totem poles carved with chain saws or poles created outside traditional means or by non tribal members are never authentic totem poles.

Totem poles Serve to Signify Status of a Clan or Tribe

Features of Totems by Tribe or Clan

Totem poles have unique features and colors depending upon the clan or tribe:

  • Bella Coola
    This tribe uses bright colors and lots of paint to decorate their poles
  • Haida
    These poles generally do not have much paint for decoration. Haida poles often place three watchmen on top.
  • Kwakiutl
    Use bright colors, lots of paint and a tendency to place Thunderbirds at the tops of the poles
  • Nootka
    Have both tall and smaller poles
  • Salish
    Tend toward small figures and small poles
  • Tlingit
    The Tlingit poles uses reds and pastel colors primarily
  • Tsimshian
    The Tsimshian like to create very tall poles

Meaning of Totem Pole Colors

  • Black
    Black is a power color. Represents strength.
  • Blue
    Indicates the Underwater World: rivers, oceans, and lakes and sometimes for the sky and mountains in the distance. The emotional attributes for blue are sincerity and happiness
  • Green
    Represents the Earth realm: the hills, trees and mountains
  • Purple
    Is reserved for symbols of reverence, and distant mountains
  • Red
    Red appears on tongues and generally where ever the color appears naturally on animals, fish, birds. Emotional attributes are blood, war or bravery
  • White and light colors
    White symbolizes the Sky realm. White and light colors are used for emphasis to make other colors stand out. The emotional attributes for white are purity, peace, and death
  • Yellow
    Easily recognizable symbol of the sun. Emotional attributes are light and happiness

Colors used on Totem Poles

Color is also used to indicate directions just as a map today indicates arrows for South, East North and West.

Directional colors are:

  • Red - South
  • Blue-Green - West
  • Yellow - North
  • White - East

Where are Totem Poles Located?

Totem poles of Northern America are located:

  • South Eastern Alaska
  • Coastal British Colombia
  • Canada
  • Northern Washington State

Totem Poles in Other Countries

Japan (Ainu), Africa, India, New Zealand (Maori), Tahiti and Hawaii, all have rich totem poles histories, however, generally these poles are referred to as Tikis, carvings and ancestral poles and figures.

In addition, these poles usually represent a form of worship, taboo or reference to gods and deities. Northern American totem poles have no religious tradition.

This is a fun classroom project.  The Thomas Elementary Art Blogspot displays some cute totem poles made by 4th graders