Fascinating Facts About Haida Mortuary Poles

The Haida people, who have inhabited the Haida Gwaii archipelago off British Columbia, Canada, for tens of thousands of years, were some of the finest wood carvers in the Pacific Northwest during the totem pole boom that began in the late 18th century and carried itself to about 1900. In Native Americans: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Peoples (1998), Barry Pritzker calls the Haida "outstanding wood-carvers" and speaks of their totem poles as some of the best in world history.

This high praise extends of course to Haida mortuary poles, which are simply totem poles specially modified to hold human remains in a box at the top. Here's an example from the 19th century, showing the pole and the frontal board behind which the boxed body rested.  

The Haida were not the only people to carve these mortuary poles; they just did it better than anyone else. Their totem pole death legacy is actually quite fascinating, but in a way that's more admirable than macabre. To imply that there is anything spooky or crude about these poles would be to totally miss the point ­– the Haida had, and still have, great respect for those among them who ended up atop poles.

  • They're for Important People Only

    Not just any random Haida could expect a mortuary pole upon death. You had to be a chief or a person of importance to receive such an honorable end. Commoners simply didn't get mortuary poles; in fact, most of them didn't get any kind of pole at all. When they died they were tossed into mass graves.

    Slaves, on the other hand, were usually just thrown in the sea.

  • Dead Bodies Waited a Year for Their Poles

    Once they passed into the next world, deceased Haida did not go directly to their mortuary poles. Instead, they waited patiently inside a mortuary house box for an entire year before their poles were ready to be raised with their remains, now in a much smaller box, perched at the top. Which kind of makes sense, as predicting time of death is usually difficult unless the individual in question is pushing 100 or has a bone-tipped spear through the chest. So there's really no sense in having your perishable death pole ready to go if you haven't died yet.

  • When a Mortuary Pole Went Up, a Potlatch Went Down

    The potlatch was (and still is) a Pacific Northwest Indian tradition wherein feasting, dancing, storytelling, generous gift-giving, and sometimes even ceremonial destruction of property helped define social status and distribution of wealth among the people. The Haida held potlatches for numerous important occasions, including births, marriages, and deaths. Like other kinds of totem pole raisings, mortuary pole raisings went hand in hand with potlatches. So really, when someone of status kicked the bucket in your village, you could mark "PARTY" on your calendar a year in advance.

  • Mortuary Poles Are Inverted Tree Trunks (and They Are Huge!)

    Mortuary poles were placed upside down – at least as far as the tree was concerned. This was done to provide as much space as possible for the human remains. Even after decomposing for a year, a corpse still took up a good deal of tree trunk real estate. Hence, Haida carvers cut a cavity into the wide end of the pole with the tapered end set into the ground.

    Mortuary poles are among the tallest of all totem poles, reaching 50 to 60 feet tall in the sky. 

  • Some Poles Are Purposely Left to Rot

    One might think the mortuary poles at the UNESCO heritage site and popular tourist destination SGang Gwaay in Haida Gwaii would have been preserved to last forever, but one would be wrong. There's a forest of old poles on the beach there, and they're slowly returning to the earth – because that's what the Haida people want. Andrew Todd writes:

    "In some cases, [native elders] have expressed a wish to be able to witness the gradual and natural decline of the wood and paint in their original placement. An example is the Haida decision regarding the mortuary and memorial poles still located on-site at the Ninstints World Heritage Site on Anthony Island, in the Queen Charlotte Islands. … The program honors the native point of view, permitting the poles to slowly deteriorate" (pg. 406).

    So, if you're planning to visit SGang Gwaay, you should probably do so in the next couple decades before the poles are gone forever.

  • The Spirits Stick Around

    The Spirits Stick Around
    Photo: seadog / Pixabay

    The Haida believe in a spirit world that coincides with our own physical world. The deceased go right on existing as spirits, and as such they tend to stay near their physical homes after death. It was and is considered an honor to have great chiefs hanging around the mortuary poles next door after they've left the physical world.

    The next time you find yourself within a stone's throw of a Haida mortuary pole, just remember, there might be a spirit of some badass Haida chief within a stone's throw of you, too.