For the purposes of this w/u, we’re going to focus on totem poles that were largely carved by the native people of the Pacific Northwest, specifically, British Columbia, Canada and southern Alaska. While other cultures throughout the world also used totem poles in one form another, these appear to be the most widespread.
What do they mean?
Carved mostly from red cedar trees, a totem pole and its symbolism can probably best be described as something akin to the Great Seal of the United States or a Coat of Arms or for that matter, just about anything else that is meant to convey a message through the use of symbols. Some totem poles also rely on symbolism in order to simply tell a story.
Originally the raising of a totem pole was included in the potlatch ceremony but over time it evolved to represent a family and/or clan and its place in the First Nations hierarchy. They were also raised to commemorate that passing of deceased elders who were important members of the society, to keep a record of the rights of an person acquired within the society over their lifetime or to record an encounter with a supernatural being. For totem poles that are more “story like” in nature, the true meaning is only known to the carver and the owner of the pole. This would account for some the mystery surrounding totem poles since their meaning has been lost over time. For the most part, most range in size from anywhere between three and seven feet although instances of much larger poles have been found..
Cast of Characters
What follows is a list of some of the more popular figures that one might see depicted on a genuine totem pole and the figures general meaning. (For those of you into comic books, there might be some resemblance.)
Thunderbird – (not the wine) Thought to be the great ruler of the sky. Thunderbirds were rumored to have a penchant for scaring us humans who had the bad sense to piss him off. He didn’t bother getting involved with our wars but was busy carrying out those of his own. He did however like to attend the dance ceremonies and seemed to have an appetite for Whales.
Kolus – thought to be a half brother to Thunderbird and regarded as rather slow in the head. He did however possess a competitive nature and was fond for showing off his strength.
Eagle – another lord of the sky and seemed to be pals with Thunderbird. Every now and then he would take on the form of a human dancer
Hawk – was known for changing in to Hawkman or Hawkwoman on a fairly regular basis. Possessed a royal demeanor and usually stuck to him or her self. Would however assist us lowly humans in a pinch.
Raven – no, not Ralph from Webster 1913 fame but a more of a prankster. He was constantly transforming his shape and was always hungry. Blessed with a curious nature, Raven was viewed as a corrupt liar who had a very compulsive nature.
Whale – from the denizens of the sky we go to denizens of the deep. Whale is thought to rule an underwater city inhabited by supernatural beings. Archrival of Thunderbird and will sometimes take on the form of a wolf when on land.
Copper Woman – meddlesome wife of the Underwater King who went by the name of Komowkwa and known for playing favorites. Seems to hit it off in grand style with Frog. Would sometimes evolve into Volcano Woman and cause eruptions.
Sisiutl (Two Headed Sea Serpent) – can turn his enemies in to stone just by looking at them. Those who hold this crest are protected from injuries during wartime. His eyes, which are removable, are made from crsytal. He is the lifetime enemy of Thunderbird.
Dzunkwa (Tsonoqua) – A woman who practices cannibalism. Us humans like to steal her stuff. She lives on land and is rumored to smell like shit Also likes to collect children but is too stupid to hold on to them and they will usually get away. There is no known way to kill her.
Bear – Makes the transformation back and forth between Bear form and human form quite easily. Has a fondness for good looking princesses and should not be dissed under any circumstances. Also can make fire with wet sticks – a bonus!
Beaver – Always on the lookout for revenge and will occasionally murder one of us humans in his quest. If he gets pissed off, he’ll dig a tunnel so huge that earthquakes and landslides result. A purveyor of the finest arrows known to mankind.
Wolf – Is very powerful but will avoid contact with humans for the most part. Has been known to cure disease among humans but at a steep price. During the evening hours he hangs with ghosts and can turn himself into Whale. The strongest and most powerful ones are pure white.
Frog –Little understood and often underestimated, Frog is a possessor of wealth. Another one not to be insulted, Frog is able to survive volcanic eruptions and is buddies with Copper Woman.
Mosquito – Little is known ‘bout Mosquito. Its thought that he had his origin in the minced up remains of cannibals, thus resulting in it’s love for blood.
Some popular myths surrounding totem poles
Lets set the record straight. There are many myth’s surrounding totem poles and their meanings. The following should be dispelled – they’re just not true!
1) Totem poles were objects of worship.
2) Totem poles were used to ward off evil spirits.
3) If you come across a painted totem pole, it’s a fake.
4) If you come across an unpainted totem pole, it’s a fake
5) Totem poles held the remains of dead ancestors
6) Totem poles were always “serious" in nature.
With regards to items 3 and 4 – it was left up to the discretion of the carver whether to paint the pole or not.
Low Man on the Totem Pole
We’ve all probably heard this expression sometime during our life. Nowadays it seems to connote a reduced station in either ones life or profession. How it got to be that way – nobody is sure. In reality the lower portion of the totem pole (depending on its size) was usually reserved for the most accomplished carvers. The logic behind that was that most people would be able to view only the lower portion of some of your larger poles. Since this portion received the most viewers, the carvings were more intricate and reserved for more experienced carvers. Those carvings higher up on the pole that were not scrutinized as closely and that contained less detailed work were usually assigned to apprentices.