March 2018

© Charles Taylor

Celebrating Totem Poles

Imagine yourself invited to a big party, a party likely to be going on for a few days. You know that there will be feasting, dancing, speech making, and story telling. You also know that you need not bother to bring a gift to your host. Quite the contrary, your host will be lavishing gifts on you and the other invited guests. These gifts will be items of value and utility such as blankets, sewing machines, motor-boats, clothing, and metal pots, all produced elsewhere and imported for the occasion. Locally made canoes and carved objects may also be given to the guests. Even gifts of flour and sugar, not produced in this part of the country, may be distributed in large enough quantities to be taken home after the party is over. There is only one catch. When your turn comes to give such a party, you will be expected to give gifts of greater value to your host and his family.

These kinds of parties actually took place among Native- American people of the Pacific Northwest until the early part of the twentieth century. Their name for such a celebration is “potlatch” and its main purpose was to enhance the social standing of the host. Of course, he didn’t do it all by himself, his family helped by providing hospitality and goods for the guests. The potlatch was, in effect, a competition between individuals and families for social status. It developed and thrived in the Pacific Northwest where there was prosperity among the Native- American people. The sea provided a great variety of foods ranging from whales to salmon. Shellfish were plentiful along the ocean shores, and the forests provided game in abundance whose pelts were traded. The forests also provided wood, which was used for construction of houses, making canoes, and all sorts of carved objects for daily use and decoration.

There was a long-standing tradition of wood carving among the coastal people of the Pacific Northwest. Until the arrival of Europeans and migrating Americans from the eastern part of the country, the tools used to do the carving were made of sharpened stones lashed to wooden handles. With the arrival of outsiders came iron and steel, which could be fashioned into blades to replace those of hard jadeite stone.

One of the carved art forms of the region, the totem pole, is widely known and associated with the Native-American people of the coastal Pacific Northwest. It has been assumed that the carving of these poles, some as high as sixty feet, was of great antiquity. Explorers visiting the region until the late eighteenth century made no mention of such poles. They did describe the carving and painting of house fronts and interiors, but nothing about large poles covered with carved and painted animal and human figures. Many anthropologists date the origin of the totem pole art form to the early nineteenth century when settlers brought new metal tools into the region. The totem pole would seem to be something new based on existing traditions of woodcarving.

So, what do totem poles have to do with the potlatch? When a new totem pole was to be erected, the occasion was considered to be significant enough to hold a potlatch. Other occasions like marriages, births, and deaths were also times for such a ceremony. Chiefs who had been made wealthy by the fur trade could afford the expense of commissioning an artist to create a totem pole. This symbol of his affluence coupled with a potlatch was a powerful claim to prestige. The totem pole proclaimed the lineage of the chief and his tribe in the same way as a coat of arms with its animals and symbols would do in Europe.

Totem poles were not objects of worship but the real or mythological animal depicted at the top was symbolic of the lineage of the chief and was, therefore, an object of reverence and respect. Each pole tells a story or legend and should be “read” from the top down. The stylized carved animals and humans are fairly easy to identify, but unless the viewer knows the story, it is not possible to fully understand the significance of the figures. The animals depicted have special characteristics with which the Native Americans could identify. These people lived close to nature and were well acquainted with the creatures of the forest, sea, and sky such as the bear, wolf, beaver, frog, salmon, whale, shark, hawk, raven, and eagle, to name a few. Frequently the creatures were also depicted with human arms, legs, and ears. In this form they were considered to be supernatural or mythological beings.

Once the carving was finished, the painting of the pole followed. Modern carvers have a whole rainbow of manufactured paints to choose from. In the early days the carvers obtained their colors from materials near at hand. For example, black and gray were made from crushed charcoal, manganese, or graphite. White was made from crushed clamshells and red from berries and animal blood. Decayed moss and fungus were used to make yellow, and brown came from chewed cedar bark or bear dung. Green was obtained from the scrapings of copper bearing rocks. In all cases the binding agent used was oil from fish or land animals or chewed salmon eggs. The pigments and binders were mixed in stone dishes and applied with brushes made of animal fur or strands of cedar bark. Sometimes areas on the poles were left unpainted.

The traveler in coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest, particularly in southern Alaska and adjoining areas of British Columbia, will be exposed to totem poles everywhere. They are a wonderful part of any Alaskan cruise and are worth some time to be studied, appreciated, and photographed.

Simon Baker

February 5, 2010 by admin · 2 Comments 


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