The use of totem poles in the Northwest predate European-Americans' arrival in the early eighteenth century. The antiquity of totem pole construction is not known because they were made of wood and decayed easily in the rain forest environment of the Northwest Coast. Thus, examples of totem poles carved before 1800 do not exist today.
To be authentic, a totem pole needs to be sanctioned, that is, it must pass certain tests. First, it must be made by a trained Northwest Pacific Native person or, in rare cases, by a non-Native apprentice who has been approved by a Northwest Pacific Coast band from Coastal British Columbia or Alaska. Second, it must be raised and blessed by Northwest Natives or elders who are part of the totem pole tradition.
Only after a meeting of elders, sponsors, and a master carver, is a totem pole carved, usually from a clear, red, mature cedar tree with few knots and imperfections. The master carver sculpts a small model of the design, after which the tree is debarked and tested for blemishes, and the wood is smoothed. The master carver begins at the bottom and works toward the top. Traditionally, as carvers work, they sing a variety of ceremonial songs, as the figures begin to emerge. The bottom is carefully detailed because the most important figures are at the bottom and observers see these figures close up. The story or theme of the totem pole is at the top.
Most totem poles range in size between three and seven feet in height, although, some much larger poles have been found. As the master carver cuts out the rough forms, he discusses the overall concept of the pole with each apprentice carver. Small poles usually take two to three months to complete, and large poles require eight to nine months.
The decision to paint the pole comes last. The carver chooses whether to paint it. Usually, the pole is painted with a series of family or clan crests or with figures representing mythic beings and then erected, usually outside a dwelling. The colors are usually bright and customarily made from animal oils, blood, salmon eggs, charcoal, graphite, and other natural and mineral dyes. The brushes were traditionally made from animal fur, and, according to history, the colors also help to tell a story associated with the various faces carved in the wood.
Many symbols and legends have been incorporated into the making of totem poles. Animals have been carved into totem poles because of Native peoples' belief that animals have spirits, as well as special talents. In many instances, Native Americans grew up hearing stories and fables about animals. The Raven, for example, is identified by its straight beak and is generally alleged to be a power trickster, curious and defiant, but likable. The Eagle has a downward, curved beak and is part of the Sky Realm. The Bear is often portrayed with large paws and sometimes a protruding tongue and as an animal that can transform into human forms. The Copper Woman, a god from Native American mythology, grants wealth to her favorites and is the friend of the Frog.
A totem pole can be very difficult to decode by outsiders, because each symbol has many stories and legends associated with it. The true and deep meaning of a pole may be known only to the family, the carver, and others familiar with its history. In addition, the totem pole has been surrounded by popular myths, such as that they were the objects of worship, they were used to ward off evil spirits and thus heeded the remains of dead ancestors, and they were always "serious" in nature. The poles were also sometimes used for public ridicule and called shame poles, erected to shame individuals or groups for unpaid debts. Shame poles today are rarely discussed, and their meanings have in many places been forgotten.
Totem poles of all types share a common graphic style with carved and painted containers, house fronts, canoes, masks, ceremonial dress, weapons, and armor. Most figures are two- or three-dimensional. This artistic system was developed by Northwest Coast Native peoples over many thousand of years, as evidenced by stone and bone artifacts uncovered in archaeological studies, which display clear examples of the same design.
The craft of making totem poles is slowly disappearing, and old totem poles are becoming scarce. Almost no nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century totem poles remain in their Native settings or in Native American ownership. Most have disappeared, and only a few have been preserved in museums or for international exhibits.
Totem poles have been called the most "iconic" of Native American arts and crafts, and the symbols presented on a given pole say a great deal about the family who owned it, a person, or the reason for creating it. These columns were once used as a form of communication and to relate narratives about Native American history, but they came to symbolize the belief of various Native American groups that forces of nature were their spiritual brethren. Fundamentally, totem poles were raised to represent the Native kinship systems, rights, prestige, accomplishments, sense of dignity, adventures, major events, and clan histories. A totem pole could be raised to honor a deceased elder, to show the name of an important person, to record an encounter with a spiritual being, or to symbolize generosity. Scholars have acknowledged that the meanings of the designs on totem poles are as varied as the cultures that produce them.
The popularity of carving poles increased with the growth of trade with non-Natives. As such, carvers began using the stronger, easier-to-use iron tools brought from overseas to increase their productivity. The art of totem pole carving almost died out between the 1880s and the 1950s because the potlatch was forbidden.
At one time, potlatch ceremonies celebrated important events, with guests coming from afar to feast and to be a part of communal rituals. The ceremonies included the celebration of a marriage or an accession at which the host distributed gifts according to each guest's rank or status. Over time the potlatch evolved to the representation of a family and clan in its place in the First Nation hierarchy. When the potlatch was again allowed, tribes resumed carving totem poles. Freshly carved totem poles are being erected up and down the Northwest Coast to create a renewed interest in their artistic production.
In later periods, totem poles were also raised to keep a record of the privileges of a person acquired within the society over a lifetime or to record an encounter with a supernatural being. Some poles embodied one-of-a-kind stories or unusual symbols. These stories or symbols are known in entirety only to the pole's owner and to the carver of the totem pole. The unusual meanings became known only if the pole's owner or carvers gave an account to a relative, granted interviews to academics, or left a written record. Otherwise, the hidden or special meanings were lost.
Today, totem poles are carved for both Natives and non-Natives. They have come to represent Northwest Pacific Natives and their traditions and pride, but also they are being made for "big money." Authentic, full-sized totem poles cost $25,000 to $100,000 each. Outsiders usually commission them to commemorate a great event or a coming of age, to symbolize a pact between nations, or to illustrate some sort of bond between Native people and a corporation or government entity that has commissioned the pole. The selling of totem poles is not new, nor is it a part of the old totem tradition. The practice has become a part of the modern tradition and is usually considered legitimate.
In recent years, Northwest Coast carvers have been commissioned to carve full-sized poles for many museums, corporations, and private collectors worldwide. Today, Native Americans throughout the Northwest Coast are carrying on their traditions by raising new poles to honor their deceased relatives, to celebrate their family histories, and to make totem poles for anyone who can afford them.
Barbeau, Marius. 1944. "Totemism: A Modern Growth on the North Pacific Coast." Journal of American Folklore, 57, no. 233 (March): 51–58.; Malin, Edward. 1986. Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: Timber Press.; Stewart, Hillary. 1993. Looking at Totem Poles. Seattle: University of Washington Press.