Thursday, March 17, 2011

North American Series: Part 3.3

Northwest Coast: Totem Poles

In the first post I wrote of this series I talked about stereotypes. These stereotypes make broad generalizations of American Indians and totem poles are one of these stereotypes. Well we have reached the culture area that actually builds and utilizes these totem poles, the Northwest Coast.

Totem poles weren’t just created suddenly and they were not commissioned by just anyone. The chiefs commissioned by just anyone. The chiefs commissioned them by hiring a craftsman to create the poled from cedar using stone, bone, antler bladed or other axes. Another misconception of the poled is that they are simply an expression of region or deities. In fact the totem poles were more like a coat of arms type symbol (Rochete 2010).

The totem poles were also symbols of rank and mostly made by nobility. Whoever commissioned the pole was thought to be honorable and prestigious. The images on the poles were symbols of animals or spirits that were specific to the family or clan. They also depict stories of the family’s history, rank, good deeds, origins, memorials and other important events (Rochete 2010).

The poles were always treated with respect since they were supposed to connect the humans and the supernatural. Many totem poles even represent this relationship in their carvings. On the poles the top figure is supposed to be higher in rank and superior to the others (Rochete 2010).

Totem poles come in various forms. They could be entrances to the towns and villages, become interior posts for houses or also used as grave markers. Interior poled were supposed to show the clan who owned the house and we much shorter since they held support beams. Sometimes the chief’s room would be flanked with carves posts to show his importance (Rochete 2010).

Mortuary Poles were also used to show rank. Upon the death of a high ranking individual, a box of their remains was placed at the base of the newly built pole which depicted their totemic ancestors. There were also memorial poles which were similar, but they were placed in front of the house of the deceased (Rochete 2010).

There were also poles that weren’t meant for honoring people. There were poles also built for shame and ridicule if someone had committed on offense. The only way that the pole would then be taken down would be if the individual corrected the offense (Rochete 2010).


Rochete, Eric

2010. Anth 146 Lecture for November 8, 2010.

The Pennsylvania State University.

Photo Courtesy of


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