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Colors Carvings Tribes and Clans Totem Pole

Carving Designs, Types and Meanings

meanings and definitions totem characters kwakiutl pole thunderbird bear mantotempoleicon

A animals and other carved figures of the pole symbolize the clan's history, ancestry, mythology, rights and privileges of the family who erected the pole.

Stories and meanings of totem poles were shared orally with owners of the pole, the carver, family members and whomever else the owner chose to share. Because there was no written record or history the meanings of many totem poles cannot be translated or deciphered.

Types of totem poles:

Crest Totem Poles - Crest Totem Poles include Heraldic and History Poles. Generally Crest poles are part of the house itself. These poles convey the family's ancestry, kinship, family, unity, accomplishments, adventures, traditions, and spirit ancestors and are decorated with emblems particular to the clan.
humoricon Story-telling Totem Poles, Ridicule or Humor Poles, History Poles, Legend Poles, Potlatch Poles - These story-telling types of totem poles are designed to preserve history, declare or ridicule a wrongful act inflicted upon the clan such as a bad debt, or celebrate a family event such as a wedding, birth, festival, etc. Visual humor was sometimes added to a pole if the carvers felt they were not being treated fairly, insulted or not paid. These little bits of humor show up as upside-down faces, naked figures or faces in ears, bellybuttons or being squished beneath a large figure. Today humor is inserted intentionally, just for fun.
mortuary poleicon Mortuary Totem Poles, Burial Poles and Memorial Poles - These totem poles are created to honor a deceased person and tell their story. Usually these types of poles have only one figure carved to represent the person who has died. Many mortuary poles have a compartment in the back to hold cremated ashes of the deceased person.
  House Frontal Poles and Indoor House Posts - These poles and posts support main house structures such as walls and roof and are decorated with clan emblems.

Authentic vs Non-Authentic Poles

Chainsaw totem poles are for tourists. Authentic totem poles are those carved by sanctioned carvers. These people follow the rules of traditional symbols, stories and family crests according to their tribal associations. An authentic pole is created through tradition only. Official clan or tribal ceremonies must combine to make a pole authentic.

The lifespan of a totem pole is about 100 years. Many are moved to protective environment such as museums and restored or replicated.

Contrary to the popular belief, the "low man on the totem pole" is the most important figure. Totem poles are read from bottom to top. Because the bottom figure is the one people see first, the most expert or chief carvers would take care of the bottom figures and allow apprentices and inexperienced carver take care of the middle and top portions.

Paper Totem Poles, totem poles carved with chain saws or poles created outside traditional means or by non tribal members are never authentic totem poles.

Features of Totems by Tribe or Clan

Totem poles serve to signify status of a clan or tribe. Each pole has unique features and colors depending upon the clan or tribe:

Haida - These poles generally do not have much paint for decoration. Haida poles often place three watchmen on top.

bella coola totemicon Bella Coola - This tribe uses bright colors and lots of paint to decorate their poles
Haida - These poles generally do not have much paint for decoration. Haida poles often place three watchmen on top.
thunderbird icon Kwakiutl - Use bright colors, lots of paint and a tendency to place Thunderbirds at the tops of the poles
short poleicon Nootka - Have both tall and smaller poles
Salish - Tend toward small figures and small poles
dirty skin man totemicon Tlingit - The Tlingit poles uses reds and pastel colors primarily
tall polesicoon Tsimshian - The Tsimshian like to create very tall poles

Meaning of Totem Pole Colors

color black Black - Black is a color of power. Represents strength.
color bluedk Blue - Underwater World: rivers, oceans, and lakes and sometimes for the sky and mountains in the distance. The emotional attributes for blue are sincerity and happiness
color green Green - Represents the Earth realm: the hills, trees and mountains
color purple Purple - Is reserved for symbols of reverence, and distant mountains
color red Red - Red appears on tongues and generally where ever the color appears naturally on animals, fish, birds. Emotional attributes are blood, war or bravery
  White and light colors - White symbolizes the Sky realm. White and light colors are used for emphasis to make other colors stand out. The emotional attributes for white are purity, peace, and death
color black Yellow - Easily recognizable symbol of the sun. Emotional attributes are light and happiness

Where are Totem Poles Located?

Totem poles of Northern America are located:

South Eastern Alaska the Alaska Panhandle
Coastal British Colombia Canada's western continental coastline along the Pacific Ocean
Canada The country located in the northern half of North America
Northern Washington State a US state in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States

Totem Poles in Other Countries

Japan (Ainu) Totems
African Totems
New Zealand (Maori) Totems
Tahiti Tikis
Hawaiian Tikis

Countries worldwide have rich totem poles histories, however, generally the poles outside of the Pacific Northwest are referred to as Tikis, carvings and ancestral poles and figures.

In addition, non-Pacific Northwest traditional poles usually represent a form of worship, taboo or make reference to gods and deities. Pacific Northern American totem poles record daily life, possessions and displays of beauty and wealth or power with no religious tradition.

Fun classroom project.  The Thomas Elementary Art Blogspot displays some cute totem poles made by 4th graders -  

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