These largest of wooden sculptures were carved in cedar by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, and Bella Bella peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Their history is not completely known, but early explorers found poles in villages throughout Southeast Alaska.
Apparently, totem-pole carving reached its heyday in the late 19th century with the arrival of metal woodworking tools. The animals, birds, fish, and marine mammals on the poles were totems that represented a clan, and in combination, conveyed a message.
Totem poles were very expensive and time-consuming to produce; a clan’s status could be determined in part by the size and elaborateness of its poles.
In a society without written words to commemorate people or events, the poles served a variety of purposes. Some totem poles told a family’s history, others told local legends, and still others served to ridicule an enemy or debtor. In addition, totems were used to commemorate the dead, with a special niche at the back to hold the ashes of a revered ancestor.
Totem poles were never associated with religion, yet early missionaries destroyed many, and as recently as 1922 the Canadian government outlawed the art in an attempt to make the indigenous people more submissive. Realizing that a rich heritage was being lost because of neglect, skilled Native Alaskan carvers worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s to restore older totems and create new ones.
Today, active carving and restoration programs are taking place in Saxman, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Haines. Other good places to find totems include the Southeast Alaska towns of Hydaburg, Klawock, Kasaan, Juneau, Wrangell, and Kake.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition