A descendant of Mohawk Nation and trained in anthropology, Patty has researched and reported on indigenous peoples for over four decades.
The word “totem” is an Anglicized pronunciation of the Ojibwa/Chippewa word “doodem”, which means “clan.”
— The Author
Where Are These Poles and What do They Mean?
Carved and sculpted wooden poles and rock pillars have been vital parts of hundreds of societies globally for thousands of years.
The word “totem” is an Anglicized pronunciation of the Ojibwa/Chippewa word “doodem”, which means “clan.”
The carved figures on many indigenous poles are not in any way spirit guides. The emblems represent the founders and foundation stories of specific clans of indigenous people.
The term "totem pole" applied to Pacific Northwest carved cedar poles is a misnomer, provided by a European Catholic priest in the 1800s who visited from his nearby mission in Ojibwa/Chippewa territory, where he was Christianizing the indigenous people. Thus "totem pole" is a white term and culturally incorrect when applied to any indigenous carved or sculpted pole.
The carvings are not religious, but many foundation stories tell of the dual nature of a founder. For instance, Raven took the form of the bird in the equivalent of a Dreamtime accepted by Pacific Northwest groups, but appeared as a man on Earth.
Carved poles did not originate in the Pacific Northwest, but were constructed many centuries earlier around the Pacific Rim in the East. The Pacific Northwest pole traditions likely migrated with the people groups that came to the Western Hemisphere.
— The Author
Archeological evidence proves that indigenous poles have been and continue to be fashioned around the Pacific Rim, in Polynesia, and in faraway places like Russia, Madagascar, and Africa.
These poles have histories in Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea; all the nations up the Pacific Rim to Siberia, China, Japan, North and South Korea; and in British Columbia, nearby islands, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon.
Carved cedar poles have been adopted by many non-native artists since the mid-20th century. They can be commissioned and purchased. However, native artists still create carved and sculpted poles in their own countries.
The differences among groups of artistic wood poles and rock pillars around the world have to do with the materials used, the diameter of logs and pillars available, and the specific artistic styles each culture.
Around the Pacific Rim
Below, we will look at indigenous carved and sculpted poles on the African continent, followed by traveling clockwise around the Pacific Rim from Australia up and around to Oregon. A few carved poles may even exist in Northern California.
Africa: Madagascar and Ethiopia
Carved and sculpted poles are found in parts of Africa and Madagascar and many of these are funerary or memorial poles in honor of the dead.
In Madagascar we find tall and short stone sculptures installed at graves and many, but not all, of the figures are graphically erotic in nature. The Malagasy people continue the monument pole art today, with many fewer erotic depictions. However, the Malagasy retain a ceremony in which, after a period of years, they dig up bodies, wrap them in clean cloth, and dance with them in a festival of sorts.
The poles pictured below come East Africa in Madagascar, an island south of Ethiopia; and Ethiopia itself.
The top figure in the tall pole in the first photo below is very like the Pacific Northwest figure of "wild woman of the woods."
Southeast Asia and Oceania
Southeast Asia and Oceana (or "Oceania" in the 21st century) are home to a variety of interesting artistic wooden poles. These are located predominantly in:
- Auckland, New Zealand: These poles have been carved by the Maori.
- Northern Australia near Darwin NT, Australia: Aboriginal coffin poles contain bones of aboriginals' ancestors, elders, and families. This is similar to memorial poles in the Pacific Northwest.
- Papua New Guinea, north of Australia.
Maori Pole in London at New Zealand House
Monument Poles Honoring the Dead
Monument poles related to human death have been found in Korea and Australia. Archeologists and cultural anthropologists largely feel that these poles pre-date those found the Pacific Northwest.
Such monument poles are known as mortuary, funeral, or coffin poles; and they are made of either stone or wood.
Korean mortuary poles serve as grave markers, while Australian coffin poles contain the remains of people.
In parts of the Pacific Northwest, a box traditionally is made to contain the remains of the head of the family that owns a carved cedar pole. The box is fitted into the back of the pole like a drawer. After one year, the decayed remains traditionally would be placed into a new box and placed into the opening in the back of the family pole.
Japan: Poles of the Ainu People
The indigenous Ainu people carved various poles on Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan. The carvings have been found to be similar those carved by the Ainu on Sakhalin Island and Kuril Island, both located in the north of Russia.
Ainu totem poles have been carved for many centuries and some of them are done in a highly realistic manner, depicting three-dimensional bears, whales, and owls without folded tails and wings seen in the Pacific Northwest type.
Siberian and Ainu Poles of Russia
It is easy to see from the map below that parts of Siberia lie very near Japan and that human migration likely carried arts like that of carved poles between these areas.
The Sakha people have long bred cattle and horses, so these animals are vital to their society and appear depicted on Sakhan Island ritual poles, including those of the Ainu.
As the USSR began to clamp down on religion after the October Revolution of 1917, shamanism associated across Siberia and Sakhan ritual poles were markedly changed into a more secular culture. Their religious significance was diminished.
Totemism as artistic expression of traditional cultural ecology: comparative analysis of the use of ritual and totem poles among the peoples of Siberia and the Pacific Northwest.
— Jordan, Bella Bychkova. Papers from the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers
Several traditional carved poles sit in the City of Gangneung at the eastern end of the Yeongdong Expressway out of Seoul.
Two poles with carved faces guard the entrance to the city from a place called "Ojukheon" or "Black Bamboo Place." In the background are a myriad of kimchee jars.
The photographer skinnylawyer states that one of the guardians is the Great General Under the Heavens and the other is the Female General of the Underground.
Korean Ojukheon or 오죽헌 烏竹軒
Historic Hawaiian Tiki Poles
It is easy to see the presence of carved and sculpted poles in the upper Pacific Rim on the map below. This suggests that human migration brought the artistic pole tradition along with the indigenous peoples. Hawaiian poles may be related to those of Oceania.
Preserving Alaskan Poles
Carved cedar poles can exist outdoors only about 100 years because of the damp conditions of the Pacific Northwest. Considering this, the US Forest Service began to round up Alaskan poles from abandoned villages beginning in 1938 (Garfield and Forrest, 1961). Many were restored and placed into indoor museums, but many others were beyond repair. Local artists replicated some of these.
Carved cedar poles can exist outdoors only about 100 years because of the damp conditions of the Pacific Northwest. Traditionally, they were allowed to decay and return to the Earth.
Carved Cedar in Victoria
I was fortunate to see the World's Largest "Totem" Pole raised to a height of 186 feet in Victoria on Vancouver Island BC in AD 1992. Sadly, it was cut down like a tree in AD 2000 and divided into smaller sections.
Tall carved poles in recorded history have caused arguments among native groups. Specifically, the owner of the tallest pole has usually been criticized for it. This points to bullying those with the greatest achievements, leading to the oldest poles being destroyed out of envy.
These carved poles reflect many generations of culture before the 1700s. Some were sketched by a white settler, James Barlett, in 1792. Diaries indicate that indigenous persons explained the centuries-old tradition of their poles, masks, and other carvings.
Carved Poles in British Columbia
BC supports over 600 different indigenous groups, most of whom fashion carved poles, masks, and other figures.
Master Carver Chief Tony Hunt of Vancouver Island was likely the most famous contemporary carver in BC until his death in December 2017 but the next generation continues in the traditional carving and clothing arts.
Entire provincial parks are filled with carved cedar poles in places like Victoria on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver, BC. Many of them are the work of Chief Hunt and his large family.
In 1929,the pole pictured above was stolen and taken to Swedan. People of the Haisla Nation came home from fishing and found their nine-meter high mortuary G'psgolox pole gone. However, in 1991, the Haisla discovered their pole in a museum in Stockholm and recovered it.
Carved Cedar Figures of North America
Below is a painting of the Bella Coola Nation, otherwise called "Nuxálk" in the Pacific Northwest of Washington State and British Columbia.
The work was completed in 1897 in order to capture the long-time indigenous religious ceremonies that involved traditional mystic animals depicted on carved cedar poles. The painter was Wilhelm Sievers (b.1860 - d.1921).
Carved poles from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon depict such animals and others, according the the clan owning each pole. The arrangement of carved characters tell how each clan and family were founded and depict adventures of members of the group. Each pole is the Storyteller, an important part of the family.
While popular modern mythology holds that "totem" poles are limited to the Pacific Northwest, this idea is incorrect. First, the poles are not "totem" poles and second, carved and sculptured poles have been used around the Pacific Rim and even in Russia and Africa for many generations before they appeared with the first inhabitants that came to North America.
- Arctic Studies Center: National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institute. www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/features/ainu/index.html Retrieved May 29, 2018.
- Aldona, J. and Glass, A. The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History. 2010.
- Boas, Franz, The Houses of the Kwakiutl, U.S. National Museum Proceedings, Washington, D.C., 1888. The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, U.S. National Museum Report, 1895. Primitive Art, Instituttet for Sammenlignende Kulturforskning, Oslo, 1927.
- Cleveland, Richard Jeffry, Voyages, Maritime Adventures and Commercial Enterprises, London, 1842. Cook, Capt. James A., A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean 1776-1780, London, 1784.
- Garfield, Viola E., and Linn A. Forrest. Wolf and the Raven: Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska. University of Washington Press, 1961.
- Indian Encampment and Pow Wow. Oral Histories of Carved Poles and Masks. August 11 - 14, 2011 at the Omak Stampede Arena near the Canadian border.
- Jordan, B.B. Papers from the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers; 2009.
- Keithahn, Edward L. Monuments In Cedar. 1945; 1963; 1973; 1977. www.alaskool.org/projects/traditionalife/MonumentsInCedar/MIC.html Retrieved May 23, 2018.
- Keller, C. Madagascar, Mauritius and Other East-African Islands; pg 88-89. 1901.
- Lidz, F. How the World’s Oldest Wooden Sculpture Is Reshaping Prehistory. The New York Times; March, 2021.
- Malin, Edward. Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast. 1994. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1986.
- Reid, Bill, and Robert Bringhurst. The Raven Steals the Light. University of Washington Press, 2003.
- Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. University of Washington Press, 1993.
- The Ohio State University. Art Education 2367.01: Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity and Social Justice. Spring 1971 to the present.
- The Ohio State University. Forensic Archaeology. Spring 2017.
- The Ohio State University. Fundamentals of Archaeology. Spring 2017.
- The Ohio State University. Religious Studies 3672: Native American Religions. Spring 2018.
- Victoria's First Peoples Festival. Oral histories about carved masks, poles, and figures. Victoria, British Columbia. 1999, attended by author.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Patty Inglish MS
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on September 23, 2020:
Good question! It's a possibility. Thanks for thinking if it.
Tim on September 20, 2020:
I wonder if similar poles were fashioned in ancient Europe as well?
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 05, 2016:
@Elena S -- Thanks for reading. I will look into doing another Hub to answer your questions sometime this month - I love this topic!
Elena S on April 05, 2016:
It was very helpful and exciting! The tragic fate of the Ainu is very dramatic. I would like more analysis, explanations - what does it means : symbol on clothing, pattern on the totem pole, traditional dance, and so on.
Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on August 27, 2014:
Fascinating information - I hadn't ever thought about totem poles around the world like Maori, Korean, and Australian aboriginal...and the mortuary poles are so interesting. Thanks
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 12, 2012:
You and your mom have had an interesting life! Living on Haida Gwaii seems like an exotic dream. How long were you there?
RedElf from Canada on October 11, 2012:
Most excellent study! I am more familiar with the poles of Haida Gwaii , having lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands as they were then called. My mother was taken under the wing of Nana Salinas, a Haida elder, and gathered a fair bit of lore even before she moved to Ketchikan.
I didn't know the Ainu carved poles, too - and some of the Maori and Samoan work is amazing. Great article, Patty.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 20, 2012:
Hi Purplehubs - I've been studying these topics for 40 years since jr. high school, so not so long.
Arun Kumar from United Kingdom on May 20, 2012:
Really mind blowing.. Wondering how much time you would take to write each hub...
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 30, 2012:
I just found enough info in my studies to make me keep on going and find more. I love it.
gconeyhiden from Brooklyn, N.Y.C. U.S.A on January 30, 2012:
your really too much patty. im almost speechless w praise.
steveamy from Florida on December 29, 2011:
pretty amazing piece of research....great hub!
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on November 16, 2011:
The information should provide a view of the links between some trends and beliefs in different cultures. Sometimes these occur by coincidence, but sometimes indicate migration and its inherent change. I like the trend found moving eastward in Scandinavia, Siberia, northern Asia, where Reindeer pulling up the sun each morning become the Dragon pulling it up over the horizon.
style-of-life from Netherlands on November 15, 2011:
Wow. Very informative indeed! I had always wondered about totem poles. Thx for clearing that up for me!
htodd from United States on November 03, 2011:
Thanks ..This hub has really great information
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 17, 2011:
Thanks for the comments!
PeanutButterWine from North Vancouver, B.C. Canada on September 28, 2011:
Loved this Hub, the pictures were all beautiful and the information really interesting! :)
Jason Melancon from San Francisco, Ca on September 28, 2011:
Very nice and informative hub. This takes me back to my time living in the Cascade foothills east of Seattle. There was, and may still be, a Totem pole in Fall City, Wa.
style-of-life from Netherlands on September 27, 2011:
Wow. Cool. Interesting to read! Totem poles are fascinating.
fashion on July 31, 2011:
Very informative article.
arifulin from indonesia on July 30, 2011:
Rebecca E. from Canada on July 30, 2011:
you've done it again, I found this all very useful. I needed to explain what teh totem poles are used for and where you can find some, and this is a really big help. many thanks it's very interesting and useful.
vitalesweets from Upstate NY on July 30, 2011:
We all have heard the phrase "totem pole" butit never occurred o me to research the background of them. Very informative and extremely interesting. I love the photograph of the Korean totem poles in the historic folk village. Thanks for your piece!
One IT Ltd from Auckland on July 28, 2011:
Great to see little old New Zealand getting a mention. Keep up the good work.
BethanRose from South Wales on July 28, 2011:
This is really very interesting! I love totem poles but I just learnt a whole lot more about them. Thankyou for sharing.
invitationwrite on July 25, 2011:
Great hub I never see before.
Paul Cronin from Winnipeg on July 25, 2011:
This is the most informative hub I have read. Well done! I visited Victoria BC several years ago and was in Awe of the beautiful Totem Poles. Great Article...
TheMonk from Brazil on June 30, 2011:
I aways wanted to know more about those things. They are so misterious and cool. I´m glad I have found this hub. Voted up for sure and bookmarked it!
DylanAustin81 on June 18, 2011:
Great hub I see.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on June 16, 2011:
Yes, the other hemisphere was first. Interesting, isn't it?
PiaC from Oakland, CA on June 16, 2011:
Wow! I had no idea that there were totem poles in Japan and South Korea!
hotelmaastricht from India on June 16, 2011:
Awesome hub you shared here.
Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on June 15, 2011:
In light of studies of human migration and DNA in the Human Genome Project, the carved poles are an anthropological marker for migration of groups long ago, and taking some culture/arts/religious traditions with them. In some cases, this is confirmed by linguistic similarities.
Web World Watcher on June 15, 2011:
So does the worldwide distribution of totem poles suggest a sort of deeper argument for the origin of our species? Or is it just coincidence that they all share some connective tissue when it comes to creation myths?