Totem Pole Art

Native Indian Tribe

Totem Pole Art

Six tribes of Northwest Native Indians created their own specific artwork in the form of Totem Poles. Totem Pole Art is a traditional form of tree art encompassing wood carving and painting.


Totem pole art consists of pictorial and graphic carvings that are made into trees by using sharp thin knife blades to carve into soft bark depicting symbols and figures such as animals, that represented the emblems of clans or families. The carvings are often painted. Unlike Rock Art, Totem Pole Art has a relatively short life span, lasting for about 100 years. Depending on the skill of the artist creating the Totem Pole Art, the images can remain clear or quickly become distorted and blurred during the ageing process.

Types of Trees used in Totem Pole Art
Every totem pole is carved from one log, except for the protruding parts such as the wings, beaks and fins which are added-on pieces. The types of trees most often used to create Northwest Totem Pole art were the different types of cedar trees, usually red cedar trees but sometime the yellow cedar variety. Other trees native to the Pacific Northwest Coast include the Tulip Popular, Hemlock, Alder, Red Maple, Oak, Cherry, Cypress and Ash but the Cedars were the most suitable for creating Totem Pole art for the following reasons:

  • Height - Cedar trees are tall with a large diameter
  • Branches - Cedar trees have fewer branches than other trees native to the area such as the Alder tree
  • Needles - Their needles are very flat and soft unlike the sharp needles of many other trees
  • Carving - The soft wood of a cedar tree has a straight grain and is easy to carve
  • Preservation - Cedar trees are the least prone to rotting & have a lifespan of about 100 years

The Meaning and Purpose of Totem Pole Art
The meaning of Totem Pole Art and its purpose is to commemorate people or special events. The first totem pole art was created as part of an elaborate Potlatch ceremony which was a great, important feast with deep meaning. Totem pole Art was later created for other reasons. The principal purposes and reasons for Totem Pole Art are as follows:

  • Potlatch Totem Pole Art that symbolizes the generosity of people who sponsored Potlatch ceremonies
  • Legend Totem Pole Art that records a supernatural encounter
  • Memorial Totem Pole Art that commemorates the life of an important person
  • Burial Totem Pole Art that is used to create grave markers or grave posts
  • Heraldic Totem Pole Art  that records the history of clans or families
  • Portal or Entryway Totem Pole Art  creating poles through which a person enters a house
  • Ridicule Totem Pole Art, also called shame poles that were symbolic reminders of debts, quarrels, murders etc.
  • Indoor House Totem Pole Art designed to support the roof of the house
  • Welcoming Totem Pole Art that was situated on waterfronts and identified ownership

Totem Pole Art - Design and Artwork
Totem pole art is a reflection of the customs and heritage of Northwest Indians. Each specimen of Totem Pole Art tells a story. The stories tell of the animals and supernatural beings who helped found family lineages or commemorated special events in the lives of the people or the legends or the tribes and their cultural histories. The design and painting of the carvings and symbols on a Totem Pole require a knowledge of the tribal history and traditions of each tribe.

  • Carved and painted figures and images are stacked one on top of another
  • It is important that the design of the figures depicted on the totem pole flow effortlessly from one figure to another
  • All figures and symbols are interlocked and connected
  • Some figures are designed in a crouching position whilst others stand upright
  • Swirling, oval shapes, also known as “ovoid” design, are common forms of design elements
  • Totem Pole artists use the grain and natural color of the wood to capture the sense of life and movement in the carving
  • The animals, symbols and supernatural creatures depicted on a Totem Pole had a special meaning, characteristics and significance
  • Supernatural creatures featured in Totem Pole Art included the Thunderbird, the Sisiutl serpent, the copper frog and the Kolus bird
  • Some totem poles featured deeply etched surfaces and were designed with jutting wings and beaks, as shown in the pictures below
  • The position of figures on the pole were significant
  • Each totem pole design has regional characteristics
  • The Haida tribe often place three Watchmen on top of their totems
  • Each tribe, clan or family had special animal totems and their poles were associated with specific colors
  • The colors had special meanings and significance, some colors symbolized the four cardinal points
  • The Totem Pole was designed and carved in 3 sections - the bottom, middle and top sections
  • The bottom section required the most attention and importance as this would be seen close up
  • Totem poles are read from bottom to top
  • The artist uses small depictions of small animals, symbols or patterns to fill 'blank spots around the main figures

Totem Pole Art - Depiction of Animals
The designs and carvings of Animal Totems depicted on Totem Poles had specific and traditional stylized elements. The following chart contains the styles adopted in Totem Pole Art.

  • People: Men and Women were represented realistically, women are distinguished by a labret (lip ornament) in their lower lip
  • Supernatural or mythical creatures: These would often be a combination of both real and imaginary creatures - for example a wolf might be carved with wings
  • Land Animals: The eyes of land animals were designed and carved as two curves enclosing a circle
  • Fish and Sea Animals: The eyes of fish and some sea animals were designed and carved with round eyes
  • Wolves: Wolves would typically be carved with long sharp muzzle and elevated snout
  • Mountain Goats: Mountain Goats were depicted with large, sharp horns and cleft hoof with two toes
  • Killer Whales: Killer Whales had two spines above the round eyes, two prominent dorsal fins a large head and a mouth turned up at the corners
  • Sharks: Sharks were depicted with gills slits as crescents and a crescent shaped mouth, turned down at the corners and filled with saw-like teeth
  • Halibut Fish: Halibut had a continuous fin and was depicted with both eyes on one side
  • Octopus: The Octopus is traditionally depicted with a bird like head, hooked bill, suction plates and tentacles
  • Bears: The artist would carve a realistic depiction of a bear featuring large nostrils, paws, and fangs
  • Ravens: Ravens would be designed with sharp, protruding beaks
  • Insects: Various artistic designs were used in Insect designs, insects were carved in a similar fashion to birds making their species difficult to distinguish

Totem Pole Art - Making a Totem Pole
Totem poles were time consuming to make requiring significant manpower in their construction and erection. A Totem pole was a sign of affluence and a display of wealth. The Native American Northwest Indians belief system included Totemism and the decision to construct and raise a totem pole was subject to rituals and ceremonies. The art of designing and carving a totem pole was fast becoming a dying art until the 20th century when there was a revival of interest in native cultures and customs. New totem poles are being carved and raised in most areas where they were once common. The following link describes the process followed by Northwest Indians and How to make a totem pole.

Native Indian Art
Native American Symbols
Native Indian Tribes Index

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