Why Were Totem Poles Invented?

Native peoples of the northern Pacific coast used totem poles as public notices, funerary memorials and tribal histories. The totemic carvings of animals were crests assigned to particular clans.

Totem poles evolved from smaller forms of symbolic art. The practice of creating totem poles spread in the 19th century with the advent of metal carving tools. The cedar or spruce poles ranged from 10 feet to more than 80 feet, but some newer poles are more than 100 feet tall. Natural powders such as cinnabar or charcoal mixed with salmon eggs were used to color many poles.

Totem poles are found across much of southern Alaska, western Canada and Washington. Mortuary totem poles displayed the carving of the person being memorialized, and they often included a compartment with their ashes. Crest totem poles showed the clan emblems and ancestry of the owners. Story totem poles' sequential carvings recorded a wedding, a historical event or a bad debt owed to the village. If the debt was repaid in the latter case, the totem pole was cut down, and a new one was erected.

First seen by Europeans in 1791, totem poles are mentioned in earlier oral histories. Because wood rots, most poles last a maximum of 60 years, and the discovery of archaeological proof of older totem poles is unlikely. Traditional poles are valuable and must be sanctioned as genuine. Poles carved today may be approved if their creators follow certain protocols.