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Totem Poles

A Brief History of Totem Poles


Totem Poles use three basic colors

Totem Poles use three basic colors

(c) Betsy Malloy 2005
The name of totem poles comes from "totem," the symbol of a northwest North American native clan. When westerners first saw totem poles, they thought they were religious symbols and objects of worship. Mistakenly, early missionaries told their converts to burn their totem poles. Today, we understand the totem poles are more like billboards, signposts or tombstones; telling stories and honoring heritage.

The original carvers of totem poles lived in the are now known as Alaska's Inside Passage, members of the Tlingit, Haida and other clans.

Where to See Totem Poles

You'll find totem poles all over southwest Alaska, with at least a few in almost every town you visit. The greatest concentrations for visitors to see are in Sitka and Ketchikan:
  • Sitka National Historic Park, Sitka: Highlights here include a walk through the woods and some very old totem poles, kept inside to preserve them.
  • Saxman Village, Ketchikan: A large collection of totem poles in a small, easily-walked park. You can also see carvers at work here.
  • Totem Bight State Historic Park, Ketchikan: Fourteen totem poles are preserved in the park within an easy walk of the cruise ship docks.


Symbols on totem poles are primarily the symbols of the clans they belong to. At the highest level, everyone is either of the eagle or raven clan, with subclans such as beaver, fox, bear, and frog. The raven has a straight beak, while the eagle has a curved one. The human figure on top is the village watchman, who warned of approaching danger or a thief in the village.

If you see someone hanging upside down, they owe a debt to the village. Once the debtor paid up, the pole would be chopped down, taken into the forest to rot and a new one erected. Red ears and mouth signify a stingy person. What about the "low man?" The bottom figure was often the most important.

Types of Totem Poles

  • Crest Totem Poles: Usually part of a house, they portray a family's ancestry and the emblems of its clan.
  • Story-telling Totem Poles: The most common type, these are made for a wedding, to presere history or to ridicule bad debtors.
  • Mortuary Totem Poles: These totem poles are made to honor the dead. Cremation ashes are often kept in a compartment in the back. A single figure represents the deceased person or their clan.

How Totem Poles Are Made

Totem poles are usually made of cedar or spruce. Traditional carving tools are adzes (sharp blades tied to wooden handles), two larger ones used to remove big pieces of wood and an elbow adze (so-named because its shape looks like a human elbow) for final shaping, which compresses the wood fibers and helps make the wood water-resistant. Today's carvers charge from $500 to $3,000 per foot for their totem poles.

Totem poles are painted in black, red, brown and blue-green. Traditionally, charcoal, cinnabar (mercury ore), iron oxide and copper oxide were mixed with the oil from salmon eggs to make the paint. These days, paint comes from the hardware store, but most carvers still use the traditional colors.

The traditional way of raising totem poles is an important ceremony that involves a lot of work. After digging a hole to set it in, the tribe members carry it to the site. The pole is pulled upright with ropes, accompanied by drumming, singing, and dancing.

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