Totem Poles

The totem pole stands out as a characteristic representation of Northwest Coast art. After all, these enormous constructions have entirely altered the landscape of many towns since the nineteenth century, particularly on Haida Gwaii (or the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, Canada). Each totem pole is structurally impressive, symbolically rich, and culturally insightful.

Totem poles have long been constructed by various peoples of the Northwest Coast –including the Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Tsimshian– but are most closely associated with the Haida. The two most populous Haida villages, Massett and Skidegate (on the north and south coasts of Haida Gwaii, respectively) display the greatest wealth of totem poles. Both poles in the Penn Museum today were collected from Massett. These objects were created in the late nineteenth century and recovered prior to suffering serious decay.

Production of totem poles rose dramatically from the turn of the nineteenth century and increased rapidly for over a century. Since the mid-twentieth century, several museums have sponsored projects to salvage the numerous poles left to the mercy of time and weather. Yet these restoration efforts conflict with the intentions of both carvers and indigenous societies, who expected eventual fading, collapse, and deterioration. Skilled sculptors today continue to carve in this tradition.

Totem poles are usually carved from western red cedar or sitka spruce trees, two species common species on the Northwest Coast. Some, especially those positioned against buildings, are concavely hollow (to reduce weight without compromising structural integrity) and unadorned in back. This format describes the two frontal poles on exhibit at Penn. The depth and style of carving can vary significantly with different communities along the coast. The Haida, for example, demonstrate deeper carving; moreover, their forms remain integral to the pole itself. In contrast, the poles of other tribes, such as the Kwakwaka’wakw, may use wings that extend far outward. After the carving, poles are painted in a variety of colors: traditional Haida technique involves black, red, and white; other tribes include blues, yellows, and additional colors. Over time, the paint fades, as on the poles on display.

Each pole serves one of three primary, often overlapping purposes: to remember and display ancestry; to entomb deceased shamans and esteemed community members; or to tell stories that engage clan mythology. The main function is evident in style and placement. First, ancestry or crest poles demonstrate specific lineages for a certain moiety: among the Haida, either Raven or Eagle. The poles, therefore, will display one of these two figures on top along with other crests of their heritage below. Crest poles are usually erected close to or against houses. Second, mortuary poles, containing the remains of deceased shamans or other wealthy individuals, are easily discernible by their box tombs, typically found at grave sites. Third, narrative or memorial totem poles illustrate stories drawn from shared myths. Like crest poles, they are located near or against houses. Though each class of pole has a distinct purpose, lines often blur between the three. .

Commonly added to totem poles, watchmen sit on top to protect the town. These figures wear clan hats with rings –or skyls– that indicate wealth and status. Specifically, skyls represent the number of potlatches hosted by the commissioner’s family. Skyls are not exclusive to the clan hats of watchmen but are always located near the top of totem poles. Competing for social superiority, ever taller poles were continually erected, leading to pole proliferation along a coastline and asserting Haida warrior reputation.

A totem pole raising takes a village. Raisings are typically performed after house-raising potlatches or around totem pole potlatches. In both cases, poles are essentially demonstrate social prestige in public celebration.



Model Totem Poles


As tourism grew along the Northwest Coast, the Haida and other peoples responded. The Haida, for one, began trading trinkets and models to foreigners. Totem poles fascinated visitors and soon became emblematic of Northwest Coast artwork. Consequently, miniature models of these structures were the most popular products traded.

Externally commissioned souvenirs often replicated the “real things,” sometimes with slight enhancements in traditional forms. Bears, for instance, continued to be portrayed with claws, full sets of teeth, and protruding tongues. Yet newly introduced materials, such as colored pencil and argillite, cost some artifacts a degree of traditional “authenticity.” On the whole, however, objects produced for foreign trade –including the model totem poles on display– remain true to form.

They essentially differ in their purposes– tourist art obviously made for foreign consumption. They are based, however, on the originals intended for a discerning insider community that fully appreciates their meaning.




-TJ Smith


Works Cited


Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge:

Harvard University Press, 1997.

-P. 115: Original totem pole setting and placement


Duffek, Karen and Charlotte Townsend-Gault. Bill Reid and Beyond. Seattle: University of

Washington Press, 2004.

-P. 158-160: Salvage of totem poles; 164: Paint and colors


Glass, Aaron. Objects of Exchange: Material Culture, Colonial Encounter, Indigenous

            Modernity. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2011.

-P. 26: Model totem poles and souvenir art


Holm, Bill. Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Seattle: University of Washington

Press, 1965.

-Art forms


Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

-P. 162: Haida poles; 176: Massett and Skidegate; 157-8: Moieties and potlatch; 235-8: Salvage; 133, 176,

148: Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tsimshian


Kramer, Pat. Totem Poles. Vancouver: Altitude Publishing Canada, 1998.

-P. 46: Moiety display on poles


MacDonald, George F. Haida Monumental Art: Villages of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Seattle:

University of Washington Press, 1994.

-P. 153, Plate 211: Pole in exhibit


Murdoch, George Peter. Rank and Potlatch among the Haida. New Haven: Yale University

Press, 1936.

-P. 7: Totem pole raising after house-raising potlatch; 12: totem pole potlatch


Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington

Press, 1979.

-Forms and mythology


Vancouver Art Gallery. Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art. Seattle: University of

Washington Press, 2006.

-P. 59: Lineage; 62: Moieties; 88-91: Holm’s forms; 92-96: Interpretation of model poles; 96: Argillite


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s