Totem Poles

Where Did Totem Poles Originate?

In most cases, a totem is a carved tribal figure, usually a pillar engraved and painted with religious or nature symbols.  From where totem poles originated is actually not known.  They are made from wood and as such, rot and decay over time.  This is especially true in rainy climates such as what we have in the Pacific Northwest coastal regions.  Consequently, there are no poles that exist today that were carved prior to the 1800s.  We do know that totem poles were present in North America prior to 1800 because of accounts from early explorers.  Presumably, totem poles seen by the early explorers were preceded by a long history of such carving, and it is assumed these were predominantly house support beams.  Design differences between totem poles is regional and most likely a product of artistic techniques.

Totems decline – and revival

Totem pole carving declined at the end of the nineteenth century largely due to American and Canadian native assimilation programs.  Carving of totems was fast becoming a dying art. However, this trend was reversed in the mid-twentieth century as a result of renewed interest in native cultures, languages and customs. New totem poles are being carved and raised in most areas where they were once common.

Totem poles today

Indigenous artists today carve totem poles as booming businesses and educate new apprentices and their customers in the art of traditional totem pole carving and construction.  Mdern poles are typically created with a traditional approach, although some carvers incorporate modern icons and some make use of nontraditional tools and techniques in their implementation.

A new totem pole can fetch thousands of dollars, but due to the amount of time an artist spends on the execution of a single piece, this may be his only source of income.  Archeological analysis show that designs being utilized today were originally developed thousands of years ago by native Americans and most share a common graphic design.

Totem pole designs usually follow a distinct style. The Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian of Alaska and British Columbia lay claim to the “Northern Style”, which utilizes identifiable color schemes of red, black and turquoise.  The “Southern Style” is common to the Wakashan and Salish tribes of Southern B.C.  Impressive thunderbirds and crest figures utilizing intricate colors of black, red, green, and yellow, white and turquoise are examples of their style.