Every Totem Poles Tells a Story: The Rich History and Symbolism

Totem poles, majestic monuments carved from colossal Western Red Cedar trunks, stand proudly along North America’s north-western coast. Crafted by various Native American groups, these structures date back to the 19th century, with indications that the tradition extends even further into the past. Beyond their age, totem poles are profound in symbolism, serving diverse purposes.

The Growth of the Poles

A splendid totem pole. ( Source )

Totem pole carving is an ancient practice among Native American groups like the Haida, Chinook, and Tlingit tribes. Some speculate these monuments evolved from intricate carvings on interior door posts, funerary containers, and memorial markers.

European travelers in the 18th century documented encountering small numbers of totem poles along the north-western coast. However, none predates the 1800s, attributed to the region’s climate hampering wooden artifact preservation. The introduction of metal tools marked a pivotal moment, enabling the creation of larger totem poles with greater ease.

Metal tools, obtained through contact with Europeans, transformed the landscape of totem pole production. The Native American tribes, fueled by wealth from the fur trade and celebrated through potlatches, erected these monuments to showcase leadership, wealth, and clan importance.

Totem Poles: Crafted with a Purpose

The Seward Pole, situated in Saxman Totem Park in Alaska, was crafted for the purpose of embarrassing someone. ( Source )

Initially associated with potlatches, totem poles served varied purposes over time. Some commemorated notable individuals or functioned as grave markers, while others narrated real or mythical family and clan stories. Totem poles were also raised to welcome or deter strangers, with ‘shame poles’ publicly shaming for unpaid debts or quarrels.

Contrary to early Christian missionaries’ beliefs, totem pole was never objects of worship. Instead, they celebrated events like weddings, adding layers to their multifaceted significance.

Totem Pole Design Features

Totem poles found in Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. ( Source )

Traditional totem poles feature a common design motif with symbolic animals and spirits. The raven represents creation and knowledge, the wolf embodies supernatural powers, and the eagle signifies focus and peace. The use of natural pigments, including black, red, white, and green, adds depth to the symbolism.

  • The Raven: Creation, transformation, knowledge, and subtlety of truth
  • The Wolf: Supernatural powers, loyalty, family ties, communication, education, and intelligence
  • The Frog: Wealth, ancient wisdom, rebirth, good luck, healing, bridge between human and spirit worlds
  • The Eagle: Focus, strength, peace, leadership, friendship, and ultimate prestige
  • The Killer Whale: Family, romance, longevity, harmony, travel, community, and protection

The choice of colors on totem poles varies among tribes, each color carrying distinct meanings.


Every totem pole stands as a testament to a rich cultural history, weaving together art, tradition, and symbolism. From humble beginnings to towering structures, these monuments tell the stories of communities, families, and individuals across generations.

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