The disruptions following Euro-American trade and settlement first led to a flowering and then to a decline in the cultures and totem pole carving. The widespread importation of Euro-American and Chinese iron and steel tools led to much more rapid and accurate production of carved wooden goods, including poles. It is not certain whether iron tools were actually introduced by Europeans, or whether iron tools were already produced aboriginally from drift iron recovered from shipwrecks; nevertheless the presence of European trading vessels and exploration ships simplified the acquisition of iron tools whose use greatly enhanced totem pole construction. The marine fur trade gave rise to a tremendous accumulation of wealth among the coastal peoples, and much of this wealth was spent and distributed in lavish potlatches frequently associated with the construction and erection of totem poles. Poles were commissioned by many wealthy leaders to represent their social status and the importance of their families and clans. As the fur trade declined the incidence of poverty on the coast increased. Christian missionaries reviled the totem pole as an object of heathen worship and urged converts to cease production and destroy existing poles.
Totem pole construction underwent a dramatic decline at the end of the 19th century due to American and Canadian urges towards Euro-American acculturation and assimilation. Fortunately, in the mid-twentieth century a combination of cultural, linguistic, and artistic revival along with intense scholarly scrutiny and the continuing fascination and support of an educated and empathetic public led to a renewal and extension of this moribund artistic tradition. Freshly-carved totem poles are being erected up and down the coast. Related artistic production is pouring forth in many new and traditional media, ranging from tourist trinkets to masterful works in wood, stone, blown and etched glass, and many other traditional and non-traditional media.
Today a number of successful native artists carve totem poles on commission, usually taking the opportunity to educate apprentices in the demanding art of traditional carving and its concomitant joinery. Such modern poles are almost always executed in traditional styles, although some artists have felt free to include modern subject matter or use nontraditional styles in their execution. The commission for a modern pole ranges in the tens of thousands of dollars; the time spent carving after initial designs are completed usually lasts about a year, so the commission essentially functions as the artist's primary means of income during the period.
The meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures which make them. Totem poles may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. Some poles are erected to celebrate cultural beliefs, but others are intended mostly as artistic presentations. Certain types of totem poles are part of mortuary structures incorporating grave boxes with carved supporting poles, or recessed backs in which grave boxes were placed. Poles are also carved to illustrate stories, to commemorate historic persons, to represent shamanic powers, and to provide objects of public ridicule. "Some of the figures on the poles constitute symbolic reminders of quarrels, murders, debts, and other unpleasant occurrences about which the Indians prefer to remain silent... The most widely known tales, like those of the exploits of Raven and of Kats who married the bear woman, are familiar to almost every native of the area. Carvings which symbolize these tales are sufficiently conventionalized to be readily recognizable even by persons whose lineage did not recount them as their own legendary history." (Reed 2003). Housefront poles were meant to show the success of the families.
Totem poles were never objects of worship. The association with "idol worship" was an idea from local Christian missionaries, who would have seen their association with Shamanism as being an occult practise. The same assumption was made by very early European explorers, but later explorers such as Jean-François de La Pérouse noted that totem poles were never treated reverently; they seemed only occasionally to generate allusions or illustrate stories and were usually left to rot in place when people abandoned a village.
Vertical order of images is widely believed to be a significant representation of importance. This idea is so pervasive that it has entered into common parlance with the phrase "low man on the totem pole". This phrase is indicative of the most common belief of ordering importance, that the higher figures on the pole are more important or prestigious. A counterargument frequently heard is that figures are arranged in a "reverse hierarchy" style, with the most important representations being on the bottom, and the least important being on top. Actually there have never been any restrictions on vertical order, many poles have significant figures on the top, others on the bottom, and some in the middle. Other poles have no vertical arrangement at all, consisting of a lone figure atop an undecorated column.
Poles used for public ridicule are usually called "shame poles", and were erected to shame individuals or groups for unpaid debts. Shame poles are today rarely discussed, and their meanings have in many places been forgotten. However, they formed an important subset of poles carved throughout the 19th century.
One famous shame pole is the Lincoln Pole in Saxman, Alaska; it was apparently created to shame the U.S. government into repaying the Tlingit people for the value of slaves which were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation. Other explanations for it have arisen as the original reason was forgotten or suppressed, however this meaning is still clearly recounted by a number of Tlingit elders today.
Another example of the shame pole is the Three Frogs Pole in Wrangell, Alaska. This pole was erected by Chief Shakes to shame the Kiks.ádi clan into repaying a debt incurred by three of their slaves who impregnated some young women in Shakes's clan. When the Kiks.ádi leaders refused to pay support for the illegitimate children Shakes had the pole commissioned to represent the three slaves as frogs, the frog being the primary crest of the Kiks.ádi clan. This debt was never repaid, and thus the pole still stands next to the Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell. This particular pole's unique crossbar shape has become popularly associated with the town of Wrangell. It was thus used, without recognizing the meaning of the pole, as part of the title design of the Wrangell Sentinel newspaper, where it is still seen today.
The construction of shame poles has essentially ceased within the last century. This is attributable to a decline in interclan rivalries and clan relationships in general, and to a desire for solidarity among most native tribes. However, as feelings of independence and nationalism increase among Northwest coast people, erecting shame poles against the American and Canadian governments has been occasionally proposed, though usually in a facetious manner. If outrage against some political decision is strong enough among the people of a particular Northwest coast tribe the erection of a new shame pole may again become a possibility, although the cost of construction will likely be a major inhibition.
A shame pole was erected in Cordova, Alaska on March 24, 2007. It includes the inverted and distorted face of Exxon ex-CEO Lee Raymond. representing the unpaid debt that courts determined Exxon owes for having caused the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska. See the Anchorage Daily News article on the pole's unveiling
Totem poles are typically not well maintained after their erection. Traditionally once the wood rots so badly that it begins to lean and pose a threat to passersby, the pole is either destroyed or pushed over and removed. Older poles typically fall over during the winter storms that batter the coast. A totem pole rarely lasts over 100 years. A collapsed pole may be replaced by a new one carved more or less the same as the original, with the same subject matter, but this requires a new payment and potlatch and is thus not always done. The beliefs behind the lack of maintenance vary among individuals, but generally it is believed that the deterioration of the pole is representative of natural processes of decay and death that occur with all living things, and attempts to prevent this are seen as somehow denying or ignoring the nature of the world.
This has not, however, prevented many people from occasionally renewing the paint on poles or performing further restorations, mostly because the expense of a new pole is beyond feasibility for the owner. Also, owners of poles who are not familiar with cultural traditions may see upkeep as a necessary investment for property, and ignore the philosophical implications.
Each culture typically has complex rules and customs regarding the designs which are represented on poles. The designs themselves are generally considered the property of a particular clan or family group, and this ownership may not be transferred to the owner of a pole (See also Heraldry). As such, pictures, paintings, and other copies of the designs may be an infringement of posessory rights of a certain family or cultural group. Thus it is important that the ownership of the artistic designs represented on a pole are respected as private property to the same extent that the pole itself is property. Public display and sale of pictures and other representations of totem pole designs should be cleared with both the owners of the pole and the cultural group or tribal government associated with the designs on the pole.
However totem poles in general are not the exclusive cultural property of a single culture, so the designs are not easily protected. The appropriation by art and tourist trinket worlds of Northwest Coast American culture has resulted in, among other things, an inundation of cheap imitations of totem poles executed with little or no knowledge of the complex stylistic conventions demanded by Northwest Coast art. These include imitation styles made by other First Nations and Native American peoples in the various parts of Canada and the American Southwest. This proliferation of "totem junk" has diluted the public interest and respect for the artistic skill and deep cultural knowledge required to produce a pole.
In the early 1990s, the Haisla First Nation of the Pacific Northwest began a lengthy struggle to repatriate a sacred totem from Sweden's Museum of Ethnography Their successful efforts were documented in an NFB documentary by Gil Cardinal, style="font-style : italic;">Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole
There are disputes over which is genuinely the tallest, depending on constraints such as construction from a single log or the affiliation of the carver. Competition for making the tallest pole is still prevalent, although it is becoming more difficult to procure trees of such heights.
The thickest totem pole ever carved to date is in Duncan, British Columbia, carved by Richard Hunt in 1988, and measures over 6 ft (1.8 m) in diameter. It is carved in the Kwakwaka'wakw style, and represents Cedar Man transforming into his human form.
Standing a total of 173 feet tall, the world's tallest totem pole is comprised of two pieces of 168 and 5 feet. This one is in Alert Bay, British Columbia.
McKinleyville, California—World´s Tallest Totem Pole weighs 57,000 pounds, the base weighs 214,000 pounds and the pole stands 160 feet high. It was carved from a 500-year old redwood tree from Pacific Lumber Company. It is located in the parking lot to the left and slightly behind Safeway on Central Avenue not far from the Arcata-Eureka Airport (in McKinleyville). Built out of the largest tree ever hauled across a California highway, the totem pole was carved to commemorate the grand opening of the Mckinleyville Shopping Center. Designed in 1962 by Ernest Pierson of Pierson’s Building Center in Eureka, he and a friend carved the monster tree in the parking lot of the center. Pierson called his totem a potlatch or celebration pole to celebrate the opening of the McKinleyville Shopping Center.
Poles have been exported to be displayed out of their original context. In Britain, at the side of Virginia Water Lake, in the south of Windsor Great Park there is a 100 foot high Canadian totem pole given to Queen Elizabeth II, commemorating the centenary of British Columbia.