The totem pole is a monument created by Northwest Coast Aboriginal peoples to serve variously as a signboard, genealogical record and memorial. Carved of large, straight red cedar and painted vibrant colours, the totem pole is emblematic of both coastal Aboriginal culture and Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art. Beginning in the 19th century settlers seeking to assimilate First Nations peoples in British Columbia threatened to limit expressions of traditional culture like the totem pole. As such, the totem pole can be seen as a symbol of ongoing survival and resistance to cultural and territorial encroachment.

Representations

Completed totem poles are usually erected as part of potlatch ceremonies and depict crest animals that are property of specific family lineages and reflect the history of that lineage. Animals represented on the crests include the beaver, bear, wolf, shark, killer whale, raven, eagle, frog and mosquito; the crest animals represent kinship, group membership and identity, while the rest of the pole may represent a family’s history.

Types of Totem Poles

There are six principal types of poles: memorial or heraldic poles, grave figures, house posts, house front or portal poles, welcoming poles and mortuary poles. Poles are skilfully carved of red cedar and are usually painted black, red, blue, and sometimes white and yellow. They vary in size, but house front poles can be over one metre in width at the base, reaching heights of over 20 m and generally facing the shores of rivers or the ocean. “Shame poles” were a less common element of the tradition, but were used to disparage neighbours for slights like unpaid debts. Contemporary communities may use similar tactics now in protesting external — government or corporate — entities.

History

While totem poles were an established feature of pre-contact Aboriginal culture, most of the well-known poles found in parks and museums were likely carved after 1860; the nature of the wooden material and the coastal climate leads to decay in totem poles. In addition, the tools used to refine the art of carving into its contemporary form were only acquired through trade with Europeans in the 19th century. Different First Nations practice different styles of carving, and often prefer different types of pole.

The 1950s saw a resurgence of interest in totem poles. New poles were commissioned for museums, parks and international exhibits; and in the late 1960s, totem poles were once again being raised at potlatches.

Many Northwest Coast communities have struggled to repatriate totem poles taken from them by colonial forces for sale or display elsewhere. In 2006, the Haisla successfully repatriated from a Swedish museum a pole taken in 1929.

Totem: Return and Renewal by Gil Cardinal, National Film Board of Canada

Contemporary Carvers

Despite the threats posed by cultural, political and territorial encroachment, the art of totem pole carving has survived. Older generation carvers such as Charlie Edenshaw (c. 1839–1920), Charlie James (1867–1938), Ellen Neel (1916–66) and Mungo Martin (1879–1962) inspired artists like Henry Hunt (1923–85), Bill Reid (1920–98), Douglas Cranmer (1927–2006), Tony Hunt (1942–), Norman Tait (1941–) and Robert Davidson (1946–) to continue the tradition and themselves inspire a new generation.

Bill Reid by Jack Long, National Film Board of Canada