Totem poles originated among the native people in the Pacific northwest section of North America, though the custom of poles was passed to other tribes. Poles are carved from cedar and typically are between 3 feet and 60 feet tall. Totem poles were introduced during ancient times. However, modern versions have been created, such as in reaction to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.
Totem poles serve a variety of purposes. House frontal poles are placed at the entrance to dwellings or are the actual doorways. Mortuary poles are both headstones and graves because they honor the deceased and hold the remains. A memorial or commemorative pole is used to honor an important leader who has died. Shame polls are less common and were originally carved to scorn debtors. However, the 1989 Alaskan shame pole was created to protest the existence and handling of the Exxon oil disaster.
Human, animal and supernatural figures are carved on totem poles. They often show family relationships, display family symbols and indicate clan membership. Contrary to popular belief, a totem pole does not tell a story like a book. Rather, it contains information that is interpreted through the knowledge of a family's history. Although the phrase "low man on the totem pole" is commonly used to indicate inferior status, no particular position on the pole has any consistent meaning among the original carvers.