Totem Poles

The raising of carved wood poles or columns is not a rare occurrence in human history. For centuries many different peoples throughout the world carved and raised large vertical columns for various purposes. What sets the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast apart are the spectacular forms, intricate patterning and the sheer monumental size, height and girth of the logs used. As Edward Malin notes, “Here the totem poles achieved an artistic significance without parallel in human experience”.

The use of the word “totem” to describe the carvings historically found along the Northwest Coast is somewhat misleading. Even the earliest explorers recognized that the poles did not depict gods nor were they objects of worship. Rather the totem poles of the Northwest Coast are heraldic. These monumental carvings are better understood as physical manifestations of the owner’s family histories and rights. The images displayed are crest figures, many of which represent supernatural beings, or ancestors who encountered supernatural beings, from whom hereditary rights and privileges were obtained. These rights include lands, resources, house designs, images, names and ceremonies including the songs, masks, dances and regalia that are shown in the ceremonies. Poles proclaim and validate a person’s lineage and importance.

Dadens house with frontal pole. From the Journal of John Bartlett, 1791.

The age of the practice of carving poles along the northwest coast has not been positively established as wood is prone to rot very quickly in the wet coastal climate. This being the case, oral histories and documentary evidence indicate that the monumental carvings found along the coast predate contact with Europeans. The earliest recorded sighting of a carved pole was by fur trader John Bartlett of Boston in 1791. He sketched a tall, carved column built into the front centre of a plank house.

Most evidence indicates that carved poles originated with the northern peoples of the coast then spread south along the coast and up the major river valleys of British Columbia and nearly to Puget Sound in Western Washington State. The only coastal people who did not have these poles were the coast Salish; they had large carved planks attached to the inside and/or outside of their ceremonial dance houses.

After contact with Europeans, the influx of trade ships arriving on the coast brought about a proliferation of metal bladed tools along with an increase of wealth for chiefs and other high ranking individuals. The tragic loss of life due to disease, which was also brought about by contact with these new trading partners, similarly impacted art for display on parts of the coast. As people who held title and high ranking social positions perished from infectious diseases like influenza, measles and smallpox, competition for these now vacant titles was conducted through potlatching and the artistic production that is sol closely tied to the potlatch system. This combination of new wealth, better tools and vacant social positions proliferated the commissioning of new and larger poles and dramatically increased the number of poles produced along the coast.

There is considerable variation in the carving traditions of the Northwest Coast. Each language group and community has its own stylistic and oral traditions and, working within those traditions, each artist has their own style. Poles continue to be carved and erected in the traditional manner throughout the coast and the act of raising a pole is still a prestigious and expensive undertaking that must be done in the context of the appropriate ceremony and witnessed through a potlatch.

Entry or portal pole at the Nuxaulk village of Komkotes. Photo by H.I. Smith, ca. 1900.

House Portal Pole:

Is a tall pole standing at the centre of the house front. It rose above the house with the open mouth of the creature at the base forming the entrance. when European style doors were later built into houses no opening was cut and the pole became a frontal pole.

Memorial Pole at the Haida village of Kasaan. © Adelaide de Menil, 1967.

Memorial Pole:

About a year after an important chiefs death, his successor raised a pole in his memory. These poles depicted the appropriate crests and symbols that represented outstanding achievements or events in the life of the deceased chief. A memorial pole can also be raised for a high-ranking person whose life achievements merit the honour.

Haida mortuary pole at Skidegate. Photo by R. Maynard 1884.

Mortuary Pole:

Particularly the Haida mortuary pole, had a cavity in the top which held the burial box inside which were the remains of a chief or high ranking person. These remains were placed in the box a year after the death. In order to accommodate the box, the cavity was generally cut into the wide end of the pole with the tapering end set into the ground. The box was hidden from view by a frontal board, painted and/or carved with a lineage crest, placed across the front. The shape and design of this board gave the appearance of a large chest.

Double mortuary pole at the Haida village of Skedans. Photo by C.M. Barbeau, 1947.

Double Post Mortuary:

Consisted of two poles separated by a short distance. A boxlike construction of planks connected the two. Inside this structure there was space for two or three burial boxes of members of the same family.

Interior house posts at the Kwakwaka'wakw village of Gwa'yi (Kingcome). © Adelaide de Menil, ca. 1966.

House Post:

Depending on the style of the house, one large single post at the rear wall and a pair of posts at the front (or two pairs, one at the front and one at the rear) support the main beams of the roof. These posts often carry carvings that also represented family lineages and histories.

Carved figure of a bear with two killer whale fins, Gitsegukla. © Adelaide de Menil, ca. 1966.

Carved Figures:

Large scale art of the coast goes beyond the carving of large poles. Artists also creat a wide range of human and animal figures. Some smaller or larger than life. These works are generally commissioned by the head of a household, these figures also play a specific part in ceremonial and spiritual life.

Welcome figures at the Kwakwaka'wakw village of Ba'as (Blunden Harbour). Photo by C.F. Newcombe ca. 1900.

Welcome Figures/Potlatch Figures:

As a welcoming gesture to important guests arriving by canoe for a feast or potlatch, a large carved figure of a human is placed at the edge of the beach, facing out to sea. It might have arms outstretched in welcome, or a hand shading its eyes in a scouting manner, watching for the visitors’ arrival.

A Speakers post placed indoors at the Kwakwaka'wakw village of Tsaxis (Fort Rupert). Photo by C.M. Barbeau. ca. 1945.

Speakers Post:

Another part of greeting ceremonies are the speakers post. This is a carved ancestral figure with an open, perforated mouth; the officially appointed speaker stands behind it to announce the names of guests as though the ancestor themself are receiving the visitors.

The closest pole to the camera is the George Scow pole erected to commemorate a potlatch he held. © Adelaide de Menil, ca. 1966.

Commemorative Figure:

On a very important occasion or potlatch a commemorative figure of the host chief may be carved. These sculptures are raised for the special occasion on a pole in front of the house or high on the gable of the house as a statement of self worth.

Tsonoqwa figure facing a debtors house with empty arms to signify an unpaid debt. Photo by E. Curtis at Gwayasdums, 1914.

Ridicule Pole or Figure:

Another way of declaring superiority of a chief might be for him to erect a ridicule pole or figure that showed a rival chief in some belittling attitude. A shame pole would be displayed to show contempt for a rival's misdeeds or an unfulfilled social obligation. In this sense, the carving would represent some aspect of the event and if it did not shame the person into paying the debt, fulfilling the promise or otherwise making good on the shortcomings, it stood as a reminder of the disgrace for all to see.

Recarving an interior house post of a Tlingit chief at Wrangell, Alaska. Photo © B. Herem, 1984.

Carving a Pole:

This is a major project only undertaken by specialists. First a cedar is carefully selected (right size with few knots). Once felled the tree is taken back to the village and raised on blocks of wood so the bark could be stripped. Next, the sapwood is removed, if the pole is not to be round, the wood is hollowed out or flattened on one side.

The person who commissions the pole discusses with the artist what crests the pole is to depict or what legend it should illustrate. The artist is free to create his own design within the given requirements. He/she draws the figures freehand on the pole. In the past this was done with a stick of charcoal. The pole was generally carved by the carver and his apprentice behind a brush screen until the pole was ready for public viewing.

Raising of a Haida totem pole at the Kayang section of Masset. Photo by G.F. MacDonald, 1996.

The carver works from the base of the pole up by roughing in the images with an adze, a curved knife and sometimes a chisel. After the rough outline is complete, the artist starts at the base again and refines the design and roughs in the details. To prevent the log from drying and cracking, the carver keeps it damp by pouring water over the areas being worked on before starting work and at the end of each day. Finally the carver takes care of the details such as feathers, claws, cross hatching on a beavers tail and so on. The artist then adds any projections such as beaks, fins, outstretched arms or wings, by carefully carving mortice and tenon joints. The projections are held in place by driving two or more wooden pegs as required. Most carvers adze the carved surface all over to give it a textured look.

In early times paint was applied sparingly, if it was applied at all. This was done mainly to accent the eyebrows, mouth, nostrils and other features. Though different cultural groups had different preferences, in general, red, black, white and blue-green were the colours used. When commercial paints were introduced, carvers often used them with great enthusiasm until some poles were totally covered in paint.

Traditionally, the artists who carve poles receive considerable payment for their labour, especially if they were famous for their work. The people who felled the tree, transported it and helped to raise it also received payment.

Once complete, the carved cedar log has to be taken to the site of its raising. A hundred or more people are needed to carry a large pole. The raising of a pole is to be accompanied by a potlatch, which includes feasting, gift giving, dancing, speeches, drumming and singing. The carver of the pole, wearing their tools around their waist, dance around the newly finished pole in celebration. The sculptured work of art then comes under critical judgement from onlookers, who appraise and discuss its size, design and the quality of work. 

Poles are placed upright in a hole dug for it. The base is packed around with rocks as large as a man can carry. Smaller stones and earth are also added as fill. Heavy rocks protect the pole from being uprooted by strong winds and also provided drainage to prevent the wood from rotting. Many poles along the coast have been leaning at a steep angle for decades without falling due to the placement of these rocks.

To see more poles and monuments organized by language group and village take a look at the Virtual Village Project