Totem poles are an artistically creative form of historical story telling.
To the uneducated eye, the totem pole appears to be a wood carving with creative art symbols and animals but nothing further is understood. To the cultivated eye each symbol on the totem pole shares a piece of information about the person or clan it represents. Most importantly, all symbol pieces are totems which are brought together to create the total totem pole.
There are four basic kinds of totem poles. The poles that are carved to celebrate a special event are the memorial poles. These poles are festive and honored (not worshipped) for the occasion, such as a wedding, birth, and so forth. Often poles are actually part of a house or structured building design. These are house posts totems. The poles that can be seen standing in front of a house near the entrance are referred to as house front poles or family totem poles. These poles obviously classify the family and their ranking in the community along with the clan they are a part of. Family crests most often decorate these carvings. Last but not least exists the grave or mortuary posts. These poles are significant to native chiefs, for they are the poles used to support the box containing his body once he has died.
Animals have their separate identity in nature which differentiates one specie from another; natives have their separate identity in a clan which differentiates one clan from another. Totem poles are a form of art which essentially provide a system of classification amongst natives. It is important to note that totem poles don’t just classify a clan, often they serve to classify the rank of natives since rank is viewed as important. Rank goes from chiefs of the tribes, followed by chiefs of the clan, to chiefs of the house. The taller the totem pole, the higher the rank of significance.
The animals on the poles represent a kinship group which a native has a legendary relationship with. It is even said the first totems were animal images that natives believed to be their ancestors. It is possible for different clans to share a common animal symbol, such as an eagle, and therefore confusion may exist in recognizing which clan a totem pole may represent. Just by researching the colors of a totem pole it becomes obvious that every detail on totem poles has a purpose which must not be over looked.
To understand the totem pole, one must understand the picture symbolism that is presented. There are several native clans, and each clan is represented by a different native animal symbol. The artist of a totem pole may share his/her responsibility role by including a totem that displays the animal of his clan. The animal totem in turn represents the responsibility role. Leadership is displayed by a bird, crane or loon totem. The bear clan is responsible for protection and defense and a member may choose to include a bear totem as part of their pole. A totem pole that represents the fish clan would likely display fish to symbolize their role as healers and scholars. The hoof clan would likely choose animals such as the sturgeon, bear or beaver to symbolize their strength and resourcefulness.
Animal symbols not only represent a clan but also represent the power and characteristics of an individual. Each animal has it’s own powerful symbolism. Depending on the tribe, the animal symbolism will slightly vary but in general most represent the same beliefs. In the Ojibiway tribe, the eagle symbolizes courage and pre-knowledge, some tribes also see it as spirit and bravery. The bald eagle symbolizes foresight and discovery. The bear represents strength and courage. Perseverance and guardianship is symbolized by the wolf. The buffalo or bison is considered to be a symbol of abundance by many tribes. Another popular animal is the beaver, it is a token of resourcefulness and represents those who mind their own business. The coyote is a trickster who educates through humor. In the Ojibiway tribe, the turtle represents the oldest traditions. It’s animal power symbolizes birth, mating and death, along with communication and emmisary.
Animals are not the only symbols found on totem poles. Often human figures are used to show the role of a native. The human symbol may show a native hunter, fisher, medicine man, trapper or other working role to represent an individual or clan. Carvings of human figures allows for the onlooker to have a greater understanding of the role of a clan. To demonstrate an example consider the marten clan and hoof clan of the Ojibiwa tribe. The marten clan is responsible for providing food; it would not be uncommon to see a carving of a hunter on the totem pole of a marten clan. Where as the hoof clan takes on the responsibility of providing medicine; it would not be uncommon to see a carving of a medicine man on the totem pole of one of it’s members.
Along with human and animal totems, mythical beast carvings may also be found on totem poles. Creative beasts are portrayed on totem poles for they relate back to ancient native stories which often spoke of their mystical presence. Natives display totem poles not only to provide artistic history, to many they also provide security. Many believed that the totems chosen would serve to protect them from harm.
The erection of a totem pole would usually be accompanied by a potlatch.