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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Totem Poles

Updated September 23, 2021 4.6k views8 items

Totem poles are Native American works of art meant to represent important facts or people. Beginning in the 1700s, many tribes in the Pacific Northwest region created totem poles, but six tribes were known to do so in large numbers: the Tlingit, the Haida, the Bella Coola, the Chinook, the Tsimshian, and the Coast Salish. These Northwestern tribes placed totem poles throughout their lands for a number of fascinating reasons based on their unique spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions. The poles typically ranged from just over 9.5 feet tall to nearly 60 feet tall. 

So what exactly did they mean and how were they used? Uncover these answers and more below.

  • Totem Poles Aren't Used For Worship

    European missionaries who first visited these indigenous tribes incorrectly reported that they were using the totem poles for worship. This misconception persists to this day, but, in truth, totem poles are merely symbolic artistic structures.

  • Not All Native American Tribes Created Totem Poles

    Photo: NinaZed / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    One of the most popular misconceptions about totem poles is they were present in all Native American cultures, but only certain indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest actually erected them. Apache and Cherokee tribes, for example, boast no historically authentic totem poles. 

  • The Images On Totem Poles Are Symbolic

    Although there were different types of totem poles, certain images appeared frequently. Common figures were the raven, symbolizing creation, the eagle, representing strength, and the killer whale, which signified guardianship. Other common images included bears (humility), frogs (stability), wolves (leadership), and beavers (determination). In addition to specific animals, totem poles would often feature images of specific humans as well, while others depicted special events or stories. 

  • There Are Six Different Types Of Totem Poles

    Photo: Cycling Man / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Totem poles are constructed for a variety of reasons and purposes, but most fall into six overarching categories.

    • Welcome poles are one of the tallest types of totem poles. They are placed along the outskirts of a community to welcome visitors.
    • Ridicule poles were erected to attract attention to certain individuals who broke tribal rules or taboos. They were also commonly used to shame people or families who were unable to pay their debts. Typically, the images on these poles were meant to represent those being ridiculed. The pole was removed once the wrong was corrected or the debt paid.
    • Heraldic poles record the history of a family or clan. Placed in front of a family's dwelling, these totem poles are usually quite large and display the clan's crest (or associated animal).
    • Indoor house poles are constructed for indoor use as part of a home's infrastructure. They are usually only eight to ten feet high, and they balanced the roofs of family homes. Some families, depending on their affluence, had up to four or five indoor poles. Indoor totem poles often depicted a family's lineage, and they sometimes included images from important ancestral legends.  
    • Memorial poles were temporarily erected to memorialize specific clan leaders. According to many traditions, a totem pole would be placed in front of a deceased chief's family home exactly one year after he had died. Memorial poles usually included only one image of the former leader, but animal images could also be featured towards the bottom. 
    • Mortuary poles were used for ceremonial burial purposes. They could be made into grave markers, grave posts, or even as parts of a grave box. For the latter, the poles supported or enclosed large, coffin-like boxes in which individuals were actually buried. These rare totem poles stood at 50–60 feet high, and only extremely important individuals were honored by being buried with them.