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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.

  • They Were Most Prominent In The 18th Century

    Photo: Ruth and Dave / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    While totem poles have existed since the 1700s, they were most popular in the 1800s. Trade gave tribes access to more advanced tools, which made carving totem poles much easier. With these new tools, they could create larger, more intricate designs, which were formed from whole tree trunks. 

  • Totem Pole Creation Nearly Died Out Completely In The Early 19th Century

    Photo: bwpcoax / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Many tribes that created totem poles were from British Columbia and the 1876 Indian Act made life pretty difficult for them. Officials created the Act to try and assimilate First Nations peoples into Western culture - whether they liked it or not. Religious ceremonies were banned, children were forced to attend specific schools; the government seemed intent on wiping out all traces of aboriginal culture. Since the Indian Act gave the Canadian government so much power over Native tribes, many religious artifacts - like totem poles - were taken from them. In such a hostile environment, creating totem poles was a risk too great to take. By 1900, most tribes had stopped making them.

  • The Repeal Of Discriminatory Laws Brought A New Appreciation For Totem Poles

    Photo: Desires Photo / flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0

    In Canada, the Indian Act was overhauled in 1951. The overhaul removed many discriminatory clauses and made it possible for Native American tribes to celebrate and embrace their heritage. In 1934, the United States Forest Service began a campaign to preserve and protect old totem poles.

  • Modern Artists Are Creating New Totem Poles

    Photo: chatirygirl / flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0

    Though the practice is not nearly as widespread as it was in the 1800s, a few Native artists still make totem poles. They work entirely on commissions and charge anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 per foot - a whole totem pole can cost upward of $60,000. They typically take six months to one year to create, but they're carved entirely by hand.