Appropriation (?) of the Month: First Nation Totem Poles

“Low Man on a Totem Pole” (1941) by H. Allen Smith

By Robin R. R. Gray

I am Tsimshian from Lax Kw’alaams, Ginaxangiik Tribe, House of ‘Liyaa’mlaxha, Gispwudwada Clan. I am writing this blog piece to discuss the appropriation of totem poles from a Northwest Coast First Nation perspective. 


Because there is an incredible amount of misunderstanding about totem poles, an Indigenous standpoint (Nakata 1998, 2007) is warranted. However, because totem poles are only indigenous to a few nations on the Northwest Coast, not all Indigenous peoples can offer this standpoint. Not only am I Tsimshian, but I also have vast extended kinship networks up and down the coast, I have multiple artists and carvers in my family, I practice my culture, I am an active community member, and—if this were not enough—I am also an anthropologist and Indigenous studies scholar whose research focuses on the production of knowledge and the power implications it engenders. Thus, the Indigenous standpoint that I offer to discuss the appropriation of totem poles is representative of an accumulation of lived knowledge derived from the experiences of many Northwest Coast First Nations peoples.  

In North America, the trend of appropriating Indigenous cultural heritage has been part and parcel to the building of empire. On the Northwest Coast, missionaries, government agents, capitalists, anthropologists, art historians, art collectors and adventure travellers all played a role in first defining, subjugating and then appropriating the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of First Nations peoples. While appropriation in the most generic sense occurs whenever human beings encounter each other, appropriation of Indigenous cultural heritage in the context of settler colonialism has almost always been about power—the power to produce knowledge about Indigenous cultures, the power to control the means of knowledge production and the power to set the terms of its use-value within society.

Indeed, throughout settler colonial history, the image and idea of totem poles—which are the tradition of various First Nations such as the Tsimshian, Haida, Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw, Heiltsuk, Haisla, Nisga’a, and Gitxsan—have been appropriated by non-Indigenous peoples in the market economy, in the fashion industry and in popular discourse. Even though totem poles are defined by the First Nations peoples who create them as communicators of Indigenous knowledge, events, history, place, rights, laws and identity, non-Indigenous peoples have long superimposed their own ways of knowing, being and doing onto totem poles, thereby redefining totem poles on non-Indigenous terms. This redefinition has essentially robbed First Nation totem poles of their meaning by taking them, using their image and talking about them, out of their cultural contexts.

For example, the appropriation of totem poles in the market economy occurred at the same time that government agents and others who were eager to exploit Indigenous vulnerability were confiscating First Nations cultural heritage. Between 1884 and 1951, the Potlatch Ban in Canada created the conditions to support the mass expropriation of First Nations cultural heritage, and this is how many totem poles became displaced from their origins and confined in places like museums across the world. This is the first major appropriation of totem poles—taking the creations of the ancestors out of their contexts to be sold and scattered across the landscape in museums, in parks, in world fairs and in major tourist areas in spite of Indigenous peoples basic human rights. In fact, there was a rush to acquire as many tangible Indigenous artifacts because racist theories of human development suggested that somehow our people were destined to disappear into extinction. Thus, totem poles came to be associated with primitive and universal Indigeneity.

Meanwhile, in true paradoxical fashion, the image of the totem pole was being appropriated by the state as a signifier of Canadian-ness and the task of achieving this level of image making was accomplished mainly through the mass-production of miniature totem poles for the tourist art market. Thus, while Northwest Coast First Nations were being penalized for practicing their so-called “backward” cultures, non-Indigenous peoples were commodifying their cultural heritage, like the totem pole, for monetary gain. In so doing, the totem pole has been taken out of context through displacement, through the Western curatorial practice of preservation and through the misrepresentation of its image as a symbol of primitive and universal Indigeneity or as an icon of Canadian identity. When anything is taken out of context, misrepresentation is bound to occur. No people know this more than Indigenous peoples.

In fact, like other Indigenous peoples, Northwest Coast First Nations have experienced perpetual misrepresentations and misunderstandings about their histories, their cultures, their worldviews, their lived social realities and their aesthetics in many market economies. For example, just like tourist art markets have appropriated Northwest Coast First Nations imagery, designs and symbols for monetary gain, the fashion industry has also. Commenting on the contemporary moment, Jessica Metcalf states bluntly, and rightly, that, “there appears to be a recent trend in fashion for companies, 'artists,' and lame designers to bite Native style and fail. If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘bite,’ let me share the definition: this word can be used to describe an instance of someone taking, stealing, copying, or imitating another person’s style, usually in a way that is of lesser quality and is displeasing” (Beyond Buckskin). Indeed, in this contemporary moment where Indigenous motifs are cool, but meaningful understandings of Indigenous peoples are not, the image of the totem pole has once again been interpreted as fair game for appropriation—this time using a different medium.

In January 2013, non-Indigenous fashion designer Jeremy Scott revealed his Adidas Originals collection. Scott’s attempt to portray “Native American culture,” as if it were a monolith, is anything but original and everything “displeasing” (photo at left). Indigenous peoples in the blogosphere and amongst our communities are not impressed, and they don’t have to be from Northwest Coast First Nations to be offended. The outfit pictured here, titled the “eagle hoody,” is clearly a bastardized knock off of a centuries-old tradition that still exists and persists within our Northwest Coast First Nations. This brings up some important realities about the nature of intellectual property law—if, as I assume, Scott has attempted to imitate another imitator's version of an actual Kwakwaka’wakw totem pole, who could make the case for intellectual property rights? If the last few decades of repatriation have taught us anything, intellectual property law certainly does not favor the descendent communities who are seeking restorative justice as a result of centuries of exploitation and repression. Rather, it is typically the museums or descendants of those collectors who illegally acquired Northwest Coast First Nation cultural heritage during the Potlatch Ban era (see the case of the so-called “Dundas Collection”) who are favored in such social, economic and legal decisions. It seems plausible then that there is little to no redress to be taken against a “lame designer” that ignorantly “bites” another peoples culture because his intellectual property rights over the collective property rights of Indigenous peoples are historically favored in the scheme of colonial law making (see the case of tattooist Victor Whitmill v. Warner Brothers).

At left: A design from Adidas Originals x Jeremy Scott, Spring 2013 (image via, [view full lookbook])

Given these realities, the problematic of appropriation should be clear, and the problematic should be evident whether it is a totem pole or Indigenous botanical knowledge that is being appropriated. When a group of people is defined as subaltern simply because of epistemological, ontological, cosmological and methodological differences, and when they are then subject to having their heritage appropriated without their consent or cooperation, or even without benefiting from said appropriation, it is difficult to make the case that the power imbalances that these scenarios engender are “unintended.” Controlling the means of knowledge production about Indigenous cultures, the means of circulation and the use-value of certain discourses is always about making an Indigenous ‘Other’ knowable by situating a non-Indigenous knower.

Indeed, appropriation is often overlooked at the level of discourse. At the level of economy, appropriation seems apparent and assessable. However, we can even see appropriation at work in popular discourse through the use of the catch phrase, “low man on the/a totem pole.” It appears that this idiom enters into public discourse during WWII when the best-selling novel, “Low Man on a Totem Pole” (1941) by H. Allen Smith is first published (image at right). It sold over a million copies and although the book did not have any literary reference to Northwest Coast First Nations peoples or totem poles, it certainly had visual references on the cover.


Over the past half century, the phrase, "low man on the/a totem pole," has been used in an attempt to communicate a sense of disempowerment and hierarchy (image at left). This phrase is especially prevalent in corporate culture, but occurs in everyday talk between friends and peers, and circulates via various media like print, radio, television and online forums. I hear the phrase being used, uncritically, from students and teachers to characters on popular TV shows like Grey's Anatomy or NCIS, for example. In this seemingly innocent everyday utterance, the totem pole has been appropriated to convey information that is unassociated with its origin, meaning or utility. Yet those who use this phrase imply that they “know” totem poles to be vertical columns that organize images in a linear hierarchy. Essentially, non-Indigenous ways of knowing and being have been superimposed upon the totem pole through discourse, thereby redefining totem poles on non-Indigenous terms, and robbing them of their Indigenous meaning and context.

Images: (above at right) “Low Man on a Totem Pole” (1941) by H. Allen Smith, published by Doubleday, Doran; (at left) Low Man on a Totem Pole, cartoon/drawing by John Collins (about 1947), McCord Museum M965.199.2934, Gift of Mr. John Collins - The Gazette.

In fact, in one online forum a commenter asks whether it is appropriate or not to use the phrase. Multiple responses arose but they all utilized a linear model for explanation. For example, to avoid being labeled discriminatory many of the anonymous online forum participants simply inverted the linear hierarchy to state that they “heard” that the lowest figure is actually most revered since it is “closest to the land.” Therefore, the commentators insisted, they are actually being “respectful” to a monolithic “Native American culture,” so it is okay to use the phrase, “low man on the/a totem pole.” Yet, following this logic, people would then start saying “high man on the totem pole,” in order to convey what they intended: hierarchy and disempowerment. One must ask, why won’t “lowest rung on the ladder” suffice? Doesn’t this make more sense? Ladders you actually climb, totem poles you don’t.

Nonetheless, the most important lesson to take away is that Northwest Coast First Nation totem poles were never created to communicate hierarchy in any sense of the term. Totem poles commemorate events like potlatches, strengthen names, tell stories, signify place, document history, assert rights, communicate origins, remind descendants of our laws, and teach contemporary artists the traditional art form.

Whether totem poles were appropriated through the market economy, the fashion industry or through popular discourse, these processes have served to perpetuate public misunderstandings and misinterpretations about the totem pole. Appropriation is not just the process by which people borrow from other cultures; it is also about controlling knowledge about ‘Other’ cultures. Indeed, the appropriation of Indigenous cultural heritage has been a strategy for controlling the knowledge produced about Indigenous cultures and peoples, the power to control the means of knowledge production and the power to set the terms of its use-value within society. Simply put, the appropriation of the totem pole has served to further trivialize northwest coast First Nations cultures.


References Cited

Nakata, Martin. 1998. Anthropological Texts and Indigenous Standpoints. Journal of Aboriginal Studies 2:3-12.

2007. The Cultural Interface. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 23:7-14.

Recommended Reading

Cardinal, Gil. 2003. Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole. 70 min. Montreal, QB: National Film Board of Canada

2007. Totem: Return and Renewal. 24 min 4 sec. Montreal, QB: National Film Board of Canada

Ecotrust Canada. 2006. G’psgolox pole returns home after 77 years, First totem ever to be repatriated from overseas. April 26. 

Huang, Alice. 2009. Totem PolesFirst Nations Studies Program, University of British Columbia,nn.d. 

Jonaitis, Aldona and Aaron Glass. 2010.  The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Metcalfe, Jessica R. 2013. Misappropriation and the Case of the Yellow CrotchBeyond Buckskin: About Native American Fashion, January 22. 

Ramsay, Heather. 2011. Totem Poles: Myth and FactThe Tyee, March 31 


The Appropriation (?) of the Month feature, written by IPinCH team members, highlights examples of uses of intellectual property that might be considered appropriations.


may i repost

Interesting take may i repost on my blog?

Feel free to link to this

Feel free to link to this article from your blog. Would you mind letting us know your blog address? Thanks! 

An ethnicity cannot be the

An ethnicity cannot be the recipient of royalties. Also, intellectual property laws decree that works become public domain seventy years (I think) after the artists death. Without those laws, the English government would be raking in millions if not billions a year for royalties on Shakespeare productions, and people would have to pay the Italian government royalties every time they wanted to write a sonnet. Furthermore, while copying a specific work without the artists permission is hackneyed, the same cannot be said for an entire style of art. For example, an artist re-painting a Warhol and selling it is illegal (he hasn't been dead 70 years), doing a painting in the style of Pop Art is not.

Thought provoking!

"One must ask, why won’t “lowest rung on the ladder” suffice? Doesn’t this make more sense? Ladders you actually climb, totem poles you don’t." That was an awesome read, great job Robin!

Great point of view! I agree! Miigwetch!

My sister, what a wonderfully written piece of truth that brings light to the dark history that pervades every First Nations person on Turtle Island. Strong and humble words! Kitchi Miigwetch! Keep it moving! A great observation!

Thank you Robin!

Thanks for this well-articulated piece. Nice have a piece to direct people to that lays out the issues so well.


Thanks for this article - I will share it widely. I also come from a family of totem pole carvers. My grandfather, Charlie Yakuglas James, has a totem pole in Stanley Park. It is one of the most photographed totem poles of the collection there, and has been plastered on everything from postcards to t-shirts to posters, and most recently, to promote a local liquor store (because the owners thought it 'represented' Vancouver). I asked the owner to stop using the image of my grandfather's work as it derogated the intellectual and moral rights of the artist. He complied. We have so much work to do to stop the appropriation of our works! As a full time practicing artist, I will continue to oppose any form of appropriation of our family's work and the works of our artists...enough is enough!

Yo! Gilakas'la!

Thank you for sharing your families history and rights and for commenting on your experiences with appropriation from a Kwakwaka'wakw perspective (I'm assuming this, since you greeted me in Kwakwala) :) Part of my extended kinship is Namgis from Alert Bay, so I'm also familiar with some of the issues of appropriation that your relations have had to go through, as well. Just thought I'd mention this because my knowledge is an accumulation of teachings that I have learned from many nations including my own. Food for Thought: We might be used to totem poles being appropriated as a marker of Canadian identity, but the Inuksuk sure is giving the totem pole a run for it's money. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Inuksuk replaced the totem pole as a signifier of Canadian-ness. First the world thought every Indigenous person carved totem poles, now everyone think we're all Inuit!

Great Article!

I've re-posted it on my blog: