Native American Totem Poles

Native Americans rich culture included native American totem poles long before the Europeans ever set foot on American land. 

Native American totem poles were carved from wood, and were carried only by the men or the sat in a room of the tent.  Sometimes native American totem poles sat outside to represent the status of the people living within.



When a chief of a tribe died, native American totem poles were used to bring them honor.  The native American totem pole would be hand carved with the story of the chief’s accomplishments during life.

History shows that high ranking people might be honored at death by being cremated, and then their ashes were put into a hollow section at the top of a native American totem pole.

A shame pole was a native American totem pole that was used to expose the disgrace of another person, and was an effective tool used by a chief of one tribe against another.  The shame native American totem pole would stay in place until the offending rival would pay a demanded price, or made peace in another way.  You can bet the shame native amercian totem pole accomplished its purpose quickly.

History shows that the first white man on record of ever laying eyes on a native American totem pole was Captain James Cook, in the year 1778. 

After a rush of smallpox epidemic swept through the native American tribes, killing many, native American totem poles were commonly used as firewood. 

Many native American totem poles are available for viewing at museums across the nation.  On examination, the most common depictions on native American totem poles are of animals or humans.  But mythical artwork was frequently carved on native American totem poles, as well.

The animals may not always be clearly carved as such, but there were always themes of each one on native American totem poles to help identify them.  For instance, a beaver would always have two sharp teeth carved on its image on native American totem poles.  Of course, their broad shaped tail would be displayed in front of their body on native American totem poles.

Hawks always had a sharp beak, even if the rest of the bird wasn’t carved at all on native American totem poles.

As any native American artwork, native American totem poles silently spoke significant information about the owner.  And native American totem poles spoke of the person’s ancient history, too.  If he had an eagle native American totem pole, it was because he believed his ancestry stemmed from the eagle.  Or perhaps the native American totem pole meant that the owner had recently had an encounter with the depicted animal.  He may have even received a gift from the animal that was depicted on the native American totem pole, supernaturally.

Unless each owner told someone the story of his native American totem pole, the meaning was not understood by others, and with time the meaning was totally lost.

Hand carved totem pole replicas are available for sale today, but they are very expensive pieces of artwork.





Related Article Links






American Indian Articles Index | Indigenous Peoples' Literature

Disclaimer: The American Indian Heritage Foundation or Indians.org do not personally endorse or support any of the comments made within the writings of this article.