Witchcraft, Worship or Public Shaming? The Puzzling Purpose of Totem Poles in North America
Totem poles are a type of monumental structure carved from the trunks of huge trees, especially the Western Red Cedar. These monuments are found in North America, specifically along its north-western coast, and are traditionally created by a number of Native American groups. Whilst the oldest totem poles that we know are from the 19 th century, it has been suggested that this tradition has existed long before then. Totem poles are rich in symbolism, and were used for a variety of purposes.
The Growth of the Poles
The carving of totem poles is a practice amongst certain Native American groups, including the Haida, the Chinook and the Tlingit tribes. One theory that has been proposed is that this type of monument developed from the elaborate carvings of interior door posts, funerary containers, and memorial markers. During the 18 th century, European travellers along the north-western coast of North America recorded seeing totem poles during their travels, though these were small and few in number. Today, however, no known totem pole dates to before the 1800s. The explanation for this is that the region’s climate is not conducive to the preservation of wooden artefacts, and serves to exacerbate the decay of these monuments.
Tlingit totem pole in Ketchikan, Alaska, circa 1901 ( Public Domain )
One of the important developments in the history of totem pole production is the introduction of metal tools. Prior to this, the totem poles made were much smaller in size, roughly equivalent to that of a walking stick. The use of metal tools, however, allowed the totem pole makers to create much larger monuments. It is unclear if these Native American groups first acquired metal tools from European settlers, or if they had recovered such tools previously from European shipwrecks. In any case, contact with Europeans enabled the Native Americans to obtain metal tools more easily.
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Totem poles in Kitwancool, British Columbia ( CC BY 3.0)
In addition, the fur trade brought great wealth to the Native American tribes of the area. One of the ways in which this wealth was spent and distributed was through gift-giving feasts known as potlatches. These celebrations are often associated with the construction of totem poles. Such poles were erected to symbolise the wealth and social status of a leader, as well as the importance of his family and clan. Therefore, it may be said that the use of metal tools and the increase of wealth amongst the Native American tribes of the coast resulted in the production of more totem poles, which were also larger in size, quite different from what was observed by European travellers during the 1700s.
Totem poles in Stanley Park, Vancouver. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Poles with Purpose
Whilst potlatches are said to be the original reason for totem poles to be erected, these monuments were also carved for a variety of other purposes later on. For instance, some totem poles were produced for the purpose of commemorating the life of an important person, whilst others functioned as grave markers. Another interesting type of totem pole is the ‘shame pole’. These were erected to publicly shame individuals / groups for unpaid debts, quarrels, as well as other unpleasant actions. Incidentally, totem poles were once assumed, by early Christian missionaries in the area, to have been objects of worship. This, however, is incorrect, as the totem poles were never worshipped by the peoples who made them.
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Totem poles, Stanley Park Vancouver ( CC BY 2.0 )
In general, traditional totem poles utilise a common design motif that depicted symbolic animal and spirits. Some of the animals commonly seen on totem poles include the wolf, the frog, the eagle and the killer whale. Additionally, these animals are representative of certain traits. The eagle for instance, symbolises peace and friendship, whilst the killer whale is a symbol of strength. In terms of colour, natural pigments were used. The artist had a limited choice of colours, which included black, red, white and green. Nevertheless, the choice of colours depends on the individual tribes, and they too, like the animals on the poles, have their own meanings.
Top image: Ketchikan, Alaska. Native American totem pole ( CC BY 2.0 )
By Wu Mingren
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