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The Native American Totem Pole

Margaret is the chairperson for the committee on Indian Affairs for her local DAR. She has written and published three books.

Native American Totem Poles

Native American Totem Poles

The Totem Pole-An Icon of the Native American Indian

Native American Totem Poles, some towering nearly forty feet high carved from the trunks of massive trees, bring a sense of awe to any tourist or adventurer who happens upon one. Not all Indian tribes carved these iconic structures. Tribes living along the Pacific Northwest coast where forests covered the landscape carved these structures for several reasons, not specific to religious belief. Meant to commemorate special occasions such as marriages, births, anniversaries, and sometimes to portray a shameful act or a death, the carver spent extensive work and time making each pole. The pole, often found outside the home of the tribal chief, was regarded as a sign of wealth and power.

Different Types of Totem Poles

  • Story-Telling Poles—Without a written language, Native Americans used symbols engraved into totem poles to preserve stories and legends
  • Memorial Poles—Served to honor the life of an important tribal member
  • House Poles—Told of a tribal clan's ancestry and lineage often used as a support pole in the house structure
  • Shame Poles— A reminder to people that the person exhibited an objectionable behavior
  • Commemorative Poles—Usually the largest created in celebration of a specific occasion
  • Mortuary Poles—Some totem poles are hollowed out in the back to serve as a holder for a deceased tribal member's ashes, while others mark graves

Shame Totem

Shame Totem

The Shame Totem Pole

This Shame Totem Pole found at axman Totem Park in Saxman Alaska was created to shame former U.S. Secretary of State William Seward for not reciprocating the potlatch given in his honor. The red around his ears symbolize Stewrd's stinginess.

How were Totem Poles Made?

Poles made from red cedar timber found in the Pacific Northwest withstand wind, rain, and time. Before iron and steel arrived, natives used tools made of stone, shells, or beaver teeth for carving. By the late eighteenth century, metal cutting tools enabled more complex designs. Today carvers use chain saws to make the rough shapes and cuts, while adzes and chisels are used to chop the wood. Knives and other woodworking tools add the finer details. A totem pole may last from sixty to eighty years before a new one must be commissioned.

Which Tribes Made Totem Poles?

Only a few tribes carved these poles. The Haida, the Tlingit, and the Coast Salish tribes lived in areas covered with tall, sturdy trees, so they became expert totem carvers. The word "totem" comes from the Ojibwa tribe's "totemism"—the belief that sacred or supernatural animals were the forebears of humans. This belief accounts for the depiction of these animals on Totem Poles.

Where Can People See Totem Poles?

The eleven-acre Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan, Alaska, holds the world's largest collection of unrestored 19th-century totem poles. The town's Totem Heritage Center houses poles taken from Tlingit and Haida villages and from Tongass Island and Old Kasaan island. Restored totem poles stand outside Saxman Totem Park, a Tlingit village near Ketchikan.

Totem Pole Traveled to Washington D.C. July 2021

A 25-foot-long, 4,900-pound totem pole carved by the Lummi people, who live in Bellingham, Washington, traveled from Washington State to Washington D.C. aboard a jumbo tractor-trailer to raise awareness about Indigenous issues and the need to protect sacred sites. It was on display near the entrance to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian until July 31, 2021, when it was moved to Rawlins Park for a month while organizers decided on a permanent home in the Washington, D.C. area. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland accepted the pole on behalf of President Biden.

What is Totem Pole Diplomacy?

A relatively new phenomenon of Totem Pole Diplomacy, begun by the Lummi House of Tears Carvers, has been making totem poles and taking them on tour for about 30 years. The group brought a pole to New York City after the September 11. 2001, terrorist attacks as a sign of morning and solidary. The 12-foot-tall cedar healing pole includes an eagle representing the fathers lost in the September 11th attack. A mother bear represents the mothers killed. A baby bear represents healing through hope and the gifts of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The colors red, black, white, and yellow represent the races of the victims. The pole was installed during the September 7, 2002, ceremony at Sterling Forest, a one- hour- drive northwest of New York City.

Have Totem Poles been Found in Florida?

In 1955, while dredging his mile stretch of land on the St. James River, Victor Roepke stumbled upon a totem. The 10- foot-owl, carved from a single piece of southern hard pine, once guarded the shore of the 1600-acre island, now a state park. Hontoon Island has a long history of indigenous habitation dating back thousands of years. A fiberglass replica owl stands on the shore of Hontoon island while the original is housed at Fort Caroline National Memorial in Jacksonville. Researchers believe it was carved by the Mayaca people, who are no more.


The Totem Pole is an icon of the Native Americans. When standing beside one of these sturdy, intricately decorated poles, Native American art and culture come alive. Native Americans today join their country by keeping their customs and sharing them through the revival of their traditions.

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