This article was originally written in 2019. 

By Sophie (Edens) Bohanon, former student and former Public Relations & Marketing Intern 

Totem poles are monumental carvings found in western Canada and the northwestern United States. Perhaps you have seen small souvenir totem poles in gift shops. Originally, small totem poles began being made in the late 1800s; however, totem pole carving dwindled when Canada banned potlatch ceremonies, also known as a gift-giving ceremony. In 1951, this ban was dropped and there was a surge in totem pole production. 

But what are totem poles? What are they made of? Why are they significant? 

Totem poles are often carved from large trees and serve different purposes, depending on which culture created them. For some, the totem pole is a storytelling device. Each of the figures on the pole represents an event, a characteristic of the story, or some other element. 

However, there’s more than one type of totem pole. There are also totem poles to display/explain a clan’s lineage or social status. 

For example, here at the David Owsley Museum of Art, we have a totem pole titled “Model of a Totem Pole” crafted by Edward Maitland. In this model, there are multiple bear figures. It is speculated that this might tie to a Haida story called “The Mother Bear Tale.” In this story, a woman is kidnapped by a bear and has twins who are half-human and half-bear. This story creates a connection between bears and humans. Other totem poles may make similar symbolic connections, either to a family or a larger clan. 

Totem poles may also be erected as memorials to honor a deceased member of the clan, or perhaps a mortuary pole which would contain the ashes of the deceased. 

The creatures that appear on these totem poles vary, depending on the connections to the individual or clan, the symbolism of the animal itself, or the story which the artist documents in wood. 

Common animals that appear include: 

●      The raven → Magical, introspective, self-realized, courageous, transformation, messenger, psychic, divination 

●      The eagle → Divine spirit, sacrifice, connection to creator, intelligence, renewal, courage, illumination of spirit, healing, creation, freedom, and risk-taker 

●      The thunderbird → Power, protection, and strength, most powerful of all spirits 

●      The beaver → Determined, strong-willed, builder, overseer, dreamer, protector, builder, motion, subconscious 

●      The bear → Industrious, instinctive, healing, power, sovereignty, guardian of the world, watcher, courage, will power, self-preservation, introspection, and great strength 

●      The wolf→ Loyalty, perseverance, success, intuition, spirit, appetite for freedom, can be a loner 

These are only some of the most frequently seen on totem poles; that is not to say that there aren’t many others such as the frog, lynx, or the killer whale. 

What would you put on your totem pole? 

There’s another museum which you may wish to visit if you find learning about Native American artwork interesting! Visit the Eiteljorg Museum to learn more about the rich history of Native American culture and the American West. While there, you could investigate the history behind the Golden Hill Totem Pole of Indianapolis! 

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