The vast majority of the world’s peoples, especially people of the USA, know very little to nothing about American Indian totem poles. Such poles are a big secret or a great mystery to such peoples. This article will explain the significance of these esteemed poles. Native American Indian totem poles are found in western Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba), and in the northwestern United States of America (Oregon, Washington State, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and southeastern Alaska).
There are a number of reasons why the American Indians created totem poles- to represent and honor, a family, or a tribe in regards to their ancestors, histories, people, to honor the birth of an individual, to honor a wedding, to honor a deceased person, to commemorate cultural beliefs that recount well known legends, or notable events or a combination or all these factors. Totem poles can also function as special mortuary containers to hold the remains of deceased ancestors. Totem poles can serve as architectural features, welcome signs for visitors to the Indian village, or even as a means to publicly scorn someone and or their family. A ridiculed individual who had failed in some way had his likeness carved upside down. Ridicule totems are commissioned by the tribal chief and if the chief was owed a considerable debt, if unresolved at a reasonable time, a ridicule totem pole can be and was erected.
The mortuary totem pole is very large and is hollowed out so that a box can slide into it. The remains of the deceased, who was a person of a very high status among the tribe, and sometimes some of their jewelry, were placed inside the box. A memorial pole is in memory of someone and there are no ashes inside. Mortuary totem poles are considered sacred.
Totem poles go back to the early 1700’s and are very tall, made of a hardwood as red cedar or spruce and are artistically carved with many very colorful images. The earliest totem poles were carved with primitive tools, even shells, as well as bronze axes or steel knives found from shipwrecks. There are very old totem poles that were carved using sharp pieces of jade. As time went by, the experienced pole carvers produced better and better sculpture.
Here are interpretations of what certain commonly carved figures represent: the raven (a symbol of The Creator since the raven is believed to be able to change into all sorts of different forms), the eagle (represents peace and friendship), the killer whale (a symbol of strength), the thunderbird (symbolizes power, protection, and strength) , the beaver (symbolizes creativity, creation, cooperation, persistence, and harmony), the bear (representative of strength, family, vitality, courage, and health), the wolf (a symbol of loyalty, strong family ties, good communication, education, understanding, and intelligence), fish (symbolize long life and food gifts from the sea), and the frog ( a symbol of cleansing, renewal, rebirth, fertility, abundance, transformation; metamorphosis, the mysteries of life and ancient wisdom). Other figures that are not so common include mythical creatures according to ancient Native American Indian lore , as well as, plants, such as berries. Humans can be depicted on totem poles. A human figure on top of a totem pole denotes a village watchman.
When viewing a totem pole the traditional way or the proper way is to look at the figures on the very top of the pole, and then scan downward, The figure at the highest point (apex) is the most important; the figure at the very bottom is the least important or very trivial. Totem poles are usually 20 feet to 40 feet tall. In regards to colors on a totem pole, some colors are literal colors of the figures, while other colors of images are symbolic. A figure of a fox that is reddish orange indicates a reddish orange fox. An olive-green or a grey-brown frog indicates a frog that is either olive–green or grey-brown.
Common symbolic colors are red- blood, war or valor, a red sphere-the red sun, blue- color of the sky and various waters-soothing, clarity, peacefulness, white-purity; virginity, yellow-color of the sun and sunshine-warmth, relaxing; healing; comfort, black-the night, concealment, the unknown, death in certain cases, green-the color of grass, foliage, abundance of good fertile land. Brown can represent certain wood or sometimes fresh garden soil; earth. Sometimes black can denote soil; earth.
Some totem poles contain just 3 colors: black, blur, and red. When commercial paint was developed by white society, and when the Indians did not use this paint; the American Indians had created their own colors, long ago-blue came from copper; it was scraped from where copper bleeds from rock, brick red came from volcanic ash, in some cases red came from crushed berries, and black from crushed charcoal mixed in with fish eggs to produce a paste. Brown came from certain types of crushed berries.
In the 1700’s, when the British showed up in the American Northwest, the British had blue tablets which they used to help give a prominent shade of blue in their dungarees. Through trade and good relations with the British, the Native American Indians were able to use these blue tablets to help color their totem poles blue.
The totem pole was all carved and painted while on the ground, but for a considerable amount of feet on the bottom side there were no carvings, no coloring. A big hole was dug out and the totem pole, after being roped up, was fitted into the ground by work teams controlling the ropes. The unused bottom part of the pole went deep into the hole, unseen by being buried with soil and rocks to hold up the totem pole. After a totem pole was erected there was a potlatch ceremony. The chief of the tribe would provide accommodations and special food for his guests such as salmon, halibut and fish eggs.
There was also meat from mountain goats, elk, moose, bears, seals, and small mammals. Berries and seaweed were also served. There was also special gift giving among the people. There were occasions of giving important speeches, singing, and dancing. The festive activities of potlatch would go on for days. Besides potlatch ceremonies for totem pole erections, potlatches were also performed for many other occasions such as births, weddings, funerals, rites of passage, the building of a new clan house, and the honoring of the deceased.