Cultural Significance of Totem Poles
Totem poles are carvings that are etched out of wooden poles. These poles are carved with the symbols of animals like birds, they are then painted to achieve a better look. The animal chosen for the carving often represents the symbol of the family or clan that makes the figure. The poles have the spiritual role of acting as the guardian figure of the family or clan. They are made to watch over the clan. However, totem poles also have social and cultural purposes. These artifacts were made to commemorate events such as supernatural incidents, celebrate the lives of important individuals, mark graves, welcome visitors, ridicule people, store the history of families, and to signify the wealth of the person that sponsored them. These poles also represented a form of atlas for travelers because they sometimes demarcated clan boundaries. Totem poles represented the cultural heritage of the host community by depicting their diverse artistry, cultural beliefs, and social practices.
Totem poles were installed in different locations, they mainly stood in front of or beside houses while some were placed out of the village where they could be spotted by visitors. These poles often told stories that could be interpreted to portray the history of the family that crafted them. Consequently, totem poles became a pervasive feature of the Northwest native American Indians’ culture. Moreover, they are the most recognizable aspect of this culture. The poles were carved in different styles, the Coast Salish preferred installing the carvings as the center posts of their houses. They would also be used within the interiors of longer buildings. The Tsimshian people made poles with horizontal lines to serve as the boundaries for the different carvings while the Kwakwaka’wakw favored bird carvings on their poles.
The process that led to the making of the poles represented a very important cultural event among the native Americans. After carving, the poles were presented in a pole raising ceremony which could occur alone or as part of a feast. During the pole raising ceremonies, the reason for making the pole, as well as its significance was shared with the audience. There were different types of totem poles which served varied purposes, the Coast Salish did not make free standing poles, they made accurate human and animal carvings using huge cedar planks on the walls of ceremonial dance houses. Stewart further states that they made beam support columns and also carved grave figures in human form.
Although all the totem poles followed one graphic style, they had two main distinctions that were followed by the Northern and the Southern Native Indians. The Northern style poles were made by the Tsimshians, Haidas, and Tlingit people, and it mainly used red, turquoise, and black colors on the carvings. Still, the Tsimshians did not use a lot of color on their poles, preferring plain pieces. The Tlingit produced poles with straight lines, devoid of the characteristic curves of the Northern Native Indians. The Southern poles arguably have the most recognized designs to date. The Kwakwaka’wakw produced the dramatic bird engraved totem poles which had better artistic features and a generous use of color.
Some of the totem poles were used to pay homage to the supernatural animals they depicted. Native American Indians believed in the existence of mystic animals. Consequently, they carved the spirit animals that had partial resemblance to birds, humans, and animals. The thunderbird was regarded as the most powerful spirit among the native Americans, and it was extensively represented on the carvings of the Kwakiuktl. The bird was thought to be big and it was believed to be able to swoop down on a surfacing whale and carry it into the mountains to feed on it. Additionally, the spiritual significance of the poles was exhibited when they were used to pay homage to ancestors such as powerful chiefs who had already died. Mortuary poles were used to store the remains of individuals who had died. These poles were made wide enough to provide room for placing the remains of the deceased.
Totem poles were important indicators of the cultures of the indigenous people who lived along the Northwest coast. The poles also showed the financial might of the individuals who owned them because hiring artists was an expensive endeavor. The different native American cultures typically had cultural connotations to the totem poles they made. While the overall designs could be traced back to a particular clan or tribe, the designs had a cultural significance. The variation in the carving style of the different poles could be attributed to the diverse cultural backgrounds of the artists who made them. As can be perceived in the carving styles, each totem pole had a specific cultural connotation and went hand in hand with protocol regarding the launch ceremonies.