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:
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 have unique features and colors depending upon the clan or tribe:
Color is also used to indicate directions just as a map today indicates arrows for South, East North and West.
Directional colors are:
Totem poles of Northern America are located:
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