Totem Pole Symbols and Meanings

Native Indian Tribe

Totem Pole

What do the graphic carvings and coloring depicted on the totem pole mean? A totem pole depicts emblems of animals and mythological creatures that are believed to have spiritual significance and who watch over the families, clans, or tribes who adhere to the belief of Totemism.

The Totem Pole symbolizes guardian spirits or helpers each of the animals, images and symbols have special and specific meanings. For additional information refer to Power Animals. Only six tribes of Northwest Indians create and construct the Totem Pole: the Haida, Tlingit, Bella Coola, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl and the West Coast tribe.

Totem Pole Symbols
The figures carved on a Totem pole might include a person, animals, birds or insects and might also display mythological and legendary images, usually Animal Spirits, whose significance was their association with the lineage of the tribe. The totem pole is built in three sections and the position of figures on the Totem pole are also significant.

  • The bottom section of the Totem Pole is the most important as it displays the symbols and images in the most visible and prominent position. Totem poles are read from bottom to top.
  • The top section of the Totem Pole often display flamboyant  portrayals of Mythical creatures and monsters such as the Thunderbird and the Haida tribe artists might often place three Watchmen with tall hats on top of their Totem Pole creations
  • Other mythical creatures such as a scaly double-headed serpent called Sisiutl, the thunderbird and a supernatural shape-shifting bird called Kolus might also be featured.

Identifying Totem Pole Symbols and Images
The images carved on the Totem Pole were carved to represent human and animal faces rather than to look exactly like them. Each figure bore an identifying symbol. Erect ears on a Totem Pole figure distinguished an animal from a man. The killer whale had a protruding dorsal fin, and the eagle, a curved beak.

  • Totem Pole People: Men and Women are represented fairly realistically. People can be depicted upright but more often in a crouching position. People are shown with erect ears and women are distinguished from men by a labret (lip ornament) in their lower lip.
  • Totem Pole Top Figures: The top figures often identify the tribe, clan or lineage such as the eagle or the raven
  • Totem Pole Land Animals: The eyes of land animals are carved as two curves enclosing a circle. Four legged animals are usually depicted in a crouching position. The bodies of most animals are facing the front.
  • Totem Pole Fish and Sea Mammals: The eyes of fish and some sea mammals are carved with round eyes
  • Totem Pole Birds: Birds are usually carved perched with their wings outstretched or folded at their sides. Their legs have large, clawed feet. Beaks horizontally protrude from the figure or carved tucked against the chest. All birds have eyebrows and have ears on the top of their heads.
  • Totem Pole Natural Phenomena: Images from nature including the sun, moon, stars and rainbows are also depicted
  • Totem Pole Wolf Symbols: The Wolf are carved with tall ears, a long sharp muzzle, elevated snout and lots of teeth
  • Totem Pole Eagle Symbols: The Eagle is distinguished by its short, curved beak
  • Totem Pole Beaver Symbols: The beaver is distinguished by its two protruding teeth and round nostrils. The beaver is often portrayed holding
  • Totem Pole Mountain Goat: The Mountain Goat is depicted with slender, sharp horns and cleft hoof with two toes
  • Totem Pole Killer Whale Symbols: The Killer Whale has two spines above the round eyes, two prominent dorsal fins, a large head and a mouth turned up at the corners. Often has spots painted on its back.
  • Totem Pole Shark Symbols: The Shark is depicted with gills slits as crescents and a crescent shaped mouth, turned down at the corners and filled with saw-like teeth
  • Totem Pole Frog Symbols: The Frog is portrayed as if seen from above.
  • Totem Pole Halibut Fish Symbols: The Halibut has a continuous fin and is depicted with both eyes on one side
  • Totem Pole Octopus Symbols: The Octopus is traditionally depicted with a bird like head, hooked bill, suction plates and tentacles
  • Totem Pole Bear Symbols: A realistic depiction of a bear but with large nostrils, paws, and fangs
  • Totem Pole Raven Symbols: The Raven is portrayed with a short, sharp, protruding beak
  • Totem Pole Insects: Various styles are used in Insect designs and are carved in a similar fashion to birds making their species difficult to distinguish
  • Totem Pole Supernatural or mythical beings: These would often be a combination of both real and imaginary creatures - for example a wolf might be carved with wings
  • Totem Pole Thunderbird : Often seen at the top of the Totem Pole. It is a powerful spirit and depicted with great wings and curled feathers or horns on its head
  • Totem Pole Kolus: The Kolus is a supernatural bird that has straight feathers or horns on its head
  • Totem Pole Mawdzeks: The Mawdzeks, another mythical bird, resembling an eagle, with a short beak turned down and depicted with his wing wrapped in front of him.
  • Totem Pole Huxwhukw: The Huxwhukw, or the Cannibal Bird, is a crest of the Kwakiutl tribe. It is depicted with an extremely long chisel-shaped beak (with which it devours the brains of men)
  • Totem Pole Sisiutl: The Sisiutl is a scaly double-headed serpent. The Sisiutl is another crest of the Kwakiutl tribe and has magical powers to transform into many forms representing both good and evil. It is a snake like horizontal figure depicted with a profile head, teeth and a large curled tongue at each end of the serpent. In the middle of its body is a human head with horns.
  • Totem Pole Dzunukwa: The Dzunukwa is a grotesque female giant and always painted with black. She is depicted with deep eye sockets, half closed eyes, pursed lips and pendulous breasts.
  • Totem Pole Haida Watchmen: The Haida Watchmen wear tall hats and their figures are on the top of totem poles, that guard the house of the chief, from where they can keep watch over the village.

Totem Pole Symbols - Tribal Totems
The totem pole symbols often used by the Northwest Indians included their tribal totems. Refer to Animism and Animal Totems for the meanings of many of their symbols

  • The totem pole symbols of the Tlingit tribe included the raven, frog, goose, sea lion, owl, salmon, beaver, codfish, skate, wolf, eagle, bear, killer-whale, shark, auk, gull, sparrow-hawk
  • The totem pole symbols of the Haida were the eagle, killer-whale, black bear, loon, woodpecker, thunderbird (mythical), hawk, wolf, dogfish, owl, otter, grizzly bear, sea lion, mountain goat
  • The totem pole symbols of the Tsimshian were the raven, codfish, starfish, eagle, halibut, beaver, whale, wolf, crane, grizzly bear, bear, killer whale, dolphin
  • The totem pole symbols of the other three tribes included the beaver, frog, raven, dogfish, halibut, land otter, starfish and hummingbird

For additional facts and information refer to articles about the History and Purpose of Totem Poles and How to make a Totem Pole.

Culture of Totem Poles
Native American Symbols
Native Indian Tribes Index

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