Totem Animals

Page 175

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By CinnamonMoon

Totem poles are well known to most people, however what they mean, the artisanship,
construction intentions and how they are used can often be elusive. I'd like to share my insights
with you in the hopes of better understanding the value of these sacred objects. I apologize as to
the sources of information, I took notes for personal use and do not have the appropriate credits
to share with you, but the information itself is common knowledge.

Let me begin by saying the totem pole can represent a personal, family, community, or nation's
totem group even myths, legends, or teaching stories of creation, as well as important events in
heritage or historical context. The totems represent the Medicine that is gathered in that
grouping, one complimenting the other, each animal depicted brings those aspects to the mix.
Totem poles were not worshipped, but the stories they told often inspired respect or veneration.
Construction often begins with a red cedar (sacred wood) pole; the western red cedar is found
mainly in Western Canada and the United States. Carving was done using knives and axes, and
early poles were painted using local materials. Totem poles were painted with a type of fish egg
tempera and colors were limited to subdued shades of red, black, green, and blue. European
paints were introduced in 1830 and poles produced after this time displayed a variety of brighter
colors. White was obtained from clay, yellow from ochres, red from iron ore, blue from copper
ore, and black from charcoal. Later poles were colored using pigments and paints garnered
through trade with the white settlers. In 1820, the iron adze was introduced by the Northwest
traders. As a result of this addition, the period from 1830-1880 is referred to as the Golden Age
of Totem Poles. This period witnessed the finest and the tallest poles (between 60-80 feet) ever constructed.

Carved with images of animals or humans depicting Spirit Helpers, one face atop the next from
the bottom up the poles took form. Cedar is used to purify the energy of a space or object so in
this light it is sacred for all ceremonial and ritual use. It is a soft wood and readily gives itself to
carving. Artisans then can depict family ancestry or lineage, protection and guardianship, healing
Medicines, ceremonial poles, Medicine stories and more. Each face has significance and the
carving itself is a sacred act imbuing the energy of the Totem Animal (or plant) into that section-
-just as one would imbue a sacred tool being fashioned.

The creation process is a ceremony in itself and begins in essence as a prayer to open to the
spirit's Medicine or the essence of the event depicted and fashion it into the likeness of the
images. This stated form of art is common to Native American ways, as a means of presenting
the teachings, or presence of these guardian or helping spirits. At the same time each tribe had its
own distinctive style.

The Kwakiutls used high-relief carvings and smooth surfaces. Haida poles utilize bold carvings
and massive style. The Tsimshian and Bella Coola were ornately carved supernatural beings, and
the West Coast people carved human figures on their house posts. By the 1880s and 90s the size
of totem poles often proved a source of bitter rivalry and feuds between a village or tribe erecting
a pole taller than that of the other group.

The archeological history of the poles and carvers is difficult to trace because they were carved
from green logs and lasted for 50-60 years, so the artisan and development of carving styles must
remain educated guessing. The earlier poles were utilizing a flatter style akin to a mask or other
ceremonial objects. The concept was one of treating the design of the pole as a unit, rather than
as several individual carvings, and this seems to have developed toward the end of the 19th

At first glance it might appear that the lowest figure on a totem pole, has the weight of an entire
menagerie on top. Interestingly enough however, the lowest end of an authentic totem pole is as
important as any other part. Totem poles are carved, not by one carver, but by a head carver and
a number of apprentice-carvers. The head carver has a reputation to uphold. Therefore he or she
is well aware that the viewers of a finished upright pole range in size from 3 feet (children) to
about 7 feet (adults). So, to be certain the totem looks professional, the chief carver personally
carves or seriously supervises the bottom ten feet of the pole.

Inexperienced apprentices are allowed more freedom to carve the higher regions. Therefore the
bottom of all totem pole is sometimes the best carved part of the whole pole. Meaning wise, the
low man has a much or more meaning than other figures.

Some poles are free-standing, others are created as the doorways into a home or building as a
means of protection, and the size can vary considerably from a small table-top pole to a lifesize
tree trunk. The images on the pole are representative of aspects relative to the intended purpose
(again personal, home, family, clan, ceremony, nation or Medicine story). The combined images
serve the needs of those who have permission to call upon them, for they are home to the essence
of that Medicine.

The artisans had no say in in their work. They were hired to do exactly as directed by the totem
pole's owner who was responsible for selection of the tree. The first step was to hollow it out as
it lightened the weight of the pole so it could be moved to a crafting location. In removing the
heartwood it was also more resistant to checking. Next the tree was scored off in equal sections.
Sometimes different artisans worked on the various sections. Separate payment was made for
each carved section. After carvings were completed, a uniform texture was applied to the entire
surface by scooping out dime sized uniform chips.

Contrary to what most people believe and understand about totem poles, the Haida people
constructed these poles, not for religious purposes, but to preserve their culture and heritage for
future generations. While totem poles are thought by many to be a symbol of Native American
culture generally, their production was limited to six tribes in British Columbia and southeastern
Alaska. The tribes which carved totem poles were the Bella Coola, Haida, Kwakiutl, Tlingit,
Tsimshian and West Coast.

To the untrained eye, totems are carvings of religious figures and coastal animals, but to the
Haida people these poles held a deeper meaning. Carved from mature cedar trees by the Native
people of the Northwest Pacific coast (British Columbia, Canada and southern Alaska, USA),
full size totem poles are outgrowths of the region's aboriginal art forms. The totem poles of the
Northwest Coast First Nations are probably the most immediately recognizable artifact of the culture.

Totem Pole Symbolism:
Totem poles are read from top to bottom. The principal character, clan, or totemic symbol was
placed on top. Following this are the characters and objects which recall the legend and at the
base of the pole is carved the wife's clan symbol. The top figure on a pole is usually the clan
crest. The most common crests are the eagle, raven, thunderbird, bear, beaver, orca and frog.
Eagles and thunderbirds have curved beaks, while the raven has a straight beak. Thunderbirds
have outspread wings. Bears and beavers have ears on the top of their heads, and beavers also
have large teeth. The orca ('killer whale') has a dorsal fin.

The figures under the crest represent figures in a story. The story may be a myth or legend, or it
may be a story from the life of a person in the tribe. Like Heraldic crests, these poles told of the
mythological beginnings of the great families, at a time before time, when animals and mythic
beasts and men lived as equals and all that was to be was established by the play of raven and
eagle, bear and wolf, frog and beaver, thunderbird and whale. They told the people of the
completeness of their culture, the continuing lineages of the Great families, their closeness to the
magic world of myth and legend. The legends usually deal with the exploits of Raven, tales of
migration, the flood, intertribal wars and early contact with white men.

Many poles are topped off with a Thunderbird, sort of a generic capper figure, something like a
Christmas star. This figure gained importance in the 1930s when the Roosevelt administration
encouraged tribes such as the Ojibway and others to carve totem poles for sale to the public.
Though they had no totem tradition, they carved generic totem poles making the Thunderbird
topper a common sight. Thunderbird (sometimes simply called "Eagle") is a regal figure, but in
many cases has far less meaning than all the carefully thought out symbolic creatures carved into
the lower regions.

Also it's important to note that many Pacific Northwest Native tribes never put Thunderbird on
top of their totems. The Haida often place three Watchmen on top of their totems. And there can
be all sorts of other figures placed on the sky-end of a totem pole. To grasp the symbolism and
secrets hidden within totem poles, try this exercise: study the Great Seal of the United States or
the Coat of Arms (the Armorial Bearing) of Canada. The symbols bound up in these national
emblems are roughly equivalent to a totem pole. In general, totem poles, just like Great Seals and
Coats of Arms mean: "This is who we are; we have prestige, we are united, and we are proud to
derive from, fight for, and stand for the qualities these symbols imply."

For example, the Coat of Arms of Canada features a lion and unicorn, British flag, maple leaves,
fleur de lis and a motto, that sums up its national identity and origins. And, the Great Seal [of the
United States] with its Eagle, shield and arrows features symbols, assigned a certain meaning,
that symbolize qualities the United States chooses to identify with.

For example the Eagle is seen as: noble, majestic, inspiring, intelligent, fierce, protective of its
eaglets, flying high above the ordinary world with keen senses and so on. In this system we look
at the "best" and noblest qualities within a symbol. For example, this particular Eagle is certainly
not classified as the carrion-eater that its real-life counterpart is. So too the items it holds in its
talons are imbued with positive meanings. Totem poles are emblems that symbolized where a
person stood within a big family grouping-- not just a mother, father, sister, brother, but within a
whole clan of relatives.

In a Native kinship system, people were considered related: by blood, experience, war exploits,
and by adoption. Each clan identified very strongly with the crests and figures carved on their
totem pole. Additionally, each totem symbol can be traced back to a mystical clan-founding
ancestor. Totem origins are so far back in time that they are non-human. For example, a person
exhibiting a Wolf totem believed one of their ancestors once lived with supernatural Wolves, and
received permission from them when he returned, to use certain symbols. Using a figure meant a
person was: "descended from ...." or had recently "encountered ..." or had received "a gift from
..." a supernatural being.

The totem pole is a bridge of sorts, a central column of energy combined of these essences and
functioning as a whole or independently just as we would focus on the functional aspects of our
chakra power centers, independent or aligned. They are like the magician's wand at times, and
this energy can be focused and directed. There are no hidden meanings in a totem pole but lots of
cultural ones: hence those outside the culture may not be able to make connections.

Totem poles are more social than religious and share nothing in common with idols, are never
worshipped and never figure in religious ceremonies. Though today we are finding ritualized
poles constructed for blessings of healing and peace. The symbols of the past only serve as
memory devices to recall a story. It is important to point out once again that these stories reflect
the unifying factors of the culture and hence to read a totem pole it is necessary to understand
Indian mythology. This is not an easy task.

Some myths were collected and published, others are lost for all time. In many cases young
Indians are not taught the myths and older tribesmen are reluctant to discuss them. "Indians
respect and honor the property right of a story. One could not sing a song which is the property
of another nor dance his dance, nor tell his story."

Types of Totem Poles:
Totem poles appear in six different settings, which are common to all five tribes serving as
public documents raised to recall legends or validate events and the difference between the six
types lie in the purpose for which they were erected. Once a pole was erected, it was never
repaired or repainted. It was left to fall prey to the elements. Indians could not engage in repairs
except with great formality and expense and no new honors realized. Socially and economically
it was cheaper to erect a new pole. Totem poles were personal monuments that the Indians
seemed content to have last only one man's lifetime.

The types of poles erected were smaller household crests, graveyard carvings, masks, staffs and
charms, poles were mainly found in 6 types. House pillars and false house pillars supported the
rafters in the large communal houses. Indoor house posts, which support the roof and carry clan
emblems; house frontal poles, which stand by the entrance of the house; heraldic poles, which
stand in the front of the house and give the family history...a heraldic portal or family poles were
placed in the middle front of a house with a hole near the base which served as a doorway. The
pole was carved with the mythological history of the clan within. Its purpose was to advertise
and exalt the lineage.

Burial poles, which carry a story about the deceased, these mortuary poles were simply painted
poles on top of which were placed a box containing the ashes of the deceased. Later the ashes
were removed and replaced with a totem. There were ridicule poles, which were sometimes
erected to shame debtors; and The Ridicule or Shame pole was erected to force some person of
high standing to meet or recognize an obligation. Many white men are carved on these poles.
Another form of shaming a person was to carve his totem upside down.

The potlatch poles, carved exclusively by the Haida to commemorate festivals were designed to
record and validate important events. Potlatch in Indian means "story master". These are the
tallest (60-80 feet) and the most elaborately decorated poles. They are distinguished by having
one to three high hatted watchmen at the top. Beneath the watchmen is the chief's totem, then his
myth and then his wife's totem. Raising the finished pole was a great social event called a
Potlatch. New pole construction was an occasion for celebration.

Poles were usually raised in the presence of hundreds of people, sometimes up to two thousand,
and the family or village responsible for raising the pole was also responsible for feeding the
visitors and for giving them suitable gifts. As is seen in many other cultures, the more generous
the festivities, the higher the prestige of the family or tribe. The poles were a way of displaying
wealth obtained in the fur trade, but it often took years to amass the resources needed to obtain
the proper log, design and carve the totem pole and then erect it with the proper ceremony. The
purpose of this party was to build up the reputation and standing of the host.

To raise the pole, a six foot hole was dug to nest the pole; the pole is ceremonially carried to the
site and depending on the size of the pole, a hundred or more people may be needed to help carry
it. Next the uncarved butt of the pole was placed over the hole, a rope was tied to the top of the
pole and passed over an A-frame, and the pole was pulled erect using strong ropes raising it in
stages while others pushed from below with long poles. Raising a totem pole in the traditional
way is a major project and often a ceremony included the accompaniment of drumming, singing
and dancing.

The erected pole would remain to give witness to the celebration that took place. Winter was the
time for Potlatch as summer was a time to gather food. Preparations for this feast took several
years and the actual celebration could last for months or even years.

It was an expensive event to which only the very rich could subscribe. Hosts were required to
provide each guest with a daily gift in addition to their food. There were two reasons why an
Indian would spend this great sum of money. First, he would pay off his debts with great
ceremony and personal honor; second he would indebt his guests by giving gifts to them. These
gifts were considered loans. After several years these loans must be paid back with interest to the
host or his heirs. Hence Potlatches served as a type of Indian life insurance. Our term "Indian
giver" is derived from this celebration. Although Indian giver is a derogatory term, the practice
from which it was derived was not.

Because Native people had no written language, totem pole stories and symbols were shared
only with the pole's owner, the carver of the totem pole and whoever they chose to tell.
If the pole's owner or carvers gave an account to a relative, granted interviews to academics, or
left a written record, then the meaning of these old totem poles is known today. If the carver
lived long ago and someone did not write it down in a form like we do, then its stories were
repeated from person to person. This is called the oral tradition. While it's not the worst way of
remembering, it is certainly subject to changes and distortions over time. An old undocumented
totem pole with hidden or special meanings may find that it's story is lost or at least distorted
over time.

Memorial poles were raised to honor both the living and the dead. Totems were a sign of the
success and wealth of the native cultures that evolved along the coast, whether Haida, Kwakiutl,
Tlingit, or Tsimshian. Sheltered by a benevolent forest, blessed with a food filled sea, the tribes
could afford the luxury of permanent village sites and ornamental art. Totems celebrated legends,
events, or simply the wealth and crest of the family for whom it was created.

The poles were neither worshipped nor had any religious significance, however the evolution of
the totem pole has come to hold these meanings to some today. They were records of the past in
a culture that had no written language. Totem Poles were an important part of tribal life for the
people of the Northwest. Tribal and family history were embodied and personified in the totems
which all individuals carried with them as an integral part of their personal identity. All family
and tribal homes proudly displayed their tribal totems - for all to see.

Sadly, in the efforts to introduce Bibles and school books, the white man's written language, the
government's outlawing of the Potlatch, the end of slavery, and the coming of canneries all
spelled the end for the totem pole. Misinformed missionaries came into these areas believing
totem poles to be pagan idols and promptly set out on a cutting campaign to destroy them. Intent
on their mission, they were very successful and destroyed a great number.

Today there is new interest in the totem pole and as a result they are being constructed by
artisans in many cultural settings to honor their people, and the old ways. Historical museums are
commissioning poles as are businesses and external tribal communities. Individuals can have
them crafted for their own personal use and they are even sold over the internet as trinket sized
gifts to yard sculptures and into the religious or spiritual sectors of group use as non-native
circles form and the spillage of one culture mixes with others.


Thank you, Cinnamon ~ this is so interesting. We went on an Alaskan inside passage cruise last
fall, and when we went to Ketchikan we visited a totem park and a Native American center. I
remember the totem poles were wonderful. There were also examples of, i believe, Tlingit and
Haida. I forgot which said which, but one of these two peoples had more simple totem poles,
while the other were more ornate. As to do with the designs of the poles, one said about the other
that you couldn't get them to talk, while you couldn't get the other to shut up.

We went to a cultural show in the lodge, and they asked for volunteers to dance. I thought, "when
will I ever get this opportunity again." So I did. It was wonderful, and the young woman who
loaned me her Raven cloak said I was getting the hang of it. We got to go into a totem carving
workshop where the master told us a bit about the totems. It was amazing!

I noticed that you said: “Construction often begins with a red cedar (sacred wood) pole; the
western red cedar is found mainly in Western Canada and the United States.”

This was very interesting to me, as our porch is supported by Canadian solid red cedar pillars
(which we couldn't afford if we built our house today). We have two of the cedar pillars inside
our house, supporting part of the ceiling at the entry, and we have a half wall covered with the
red cedar in a chevron pattern making a separation between the entry hall and the living room.
We also have the Canadian red cedar laid up to the ceiling above our limestone fireplace in a
chevron pattern and a beam covered over the center of our living room, ummm, apex.
Do you suppose it's another part of the magic of our place? What does red cedar do? It is so
very beautiful.

It may well be, Minna. Red Cedar purifies and brings in positive energies. Sounds like you've got
plenty to last you awhile and a lovely atmosphere! You're a lucky lady!!

Libraries are on this row
INDEX Page 1
(Divination & Dreams, Guides & Spirit Helpers)
INDEX Page 2
INDEX Page 3
(Main Section, Medicine Wheel, Native Languages & Nations, Symbology)
INDEX Page 4
(Myth & Lore)
INDEX Page 5
(Sacred Feminine & Masculine, Stones & Minerals)
INDEX Page 6
(Spiritual Development)
INDEX Page 7
(Totem Animals)
INDEX Page 8
(Tools & Crafts. Copyrights)

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