Totem Pole

The totem pole is the signboard, genealogical record and memorial of Northwest Coast Aboriginal people. Crests carved on poles, usually erected at POTLATCHES, were lineage property and reflected the history of the lineage. Animals represented on the crests included the beaver, bear, wolf, shark, whale, raven, eagle, frog and mosquito; they were visual statements about group membership and identity. There were six principal types of poles: memorial or heraldic poles, grave figures, house posts, housefront or portal poles, welcoming poles and mortuary poles. Poles were skilfully carved of red cedar and were painted black, red, blue and sometimes white and yellow. They varied in size, but housefront poles could be over one metre in width at the base, reaching heights of over 15 m and generally facing the shores of rivers or the ocean. While totem poles may have been an established feature of pre-contact Aboriginal culture, most of the well-known poles found in parks and museums were carved after 1860. New poles have been commissioned since the 1950s for museums, parks and international exhibits, and since the late 1960s totem poles are once again being raised at potlatches. Older generation carvers such as Charlie James (d 1938), Ellen Neel (d 1966) and Mungo MARTIN (died 1962) have inspired artists such as Norman Tait and Douglas Cranmer to continue the tradition.

See alsoNORTHWEST COAST NATIVE ART.