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Although popularly known as “totem poles” by a general public educated by biased advertising and some cheesy promotion of faux new age  activities, these carved poles are not called totem poles in their Indigenous Peoples’ native languages.  They have been carved for many hundreds of years and unnumbered generations of trained pole-, canoe-, and mask carvers in a several nations around the entire Pacific Rim. Add to this, some Peoples in interior Russia.

Carved poles are made from red and yellow cedar trees, often using the entire tree. Spruce has been used as well, and an amazing story of one particular famous spruce is included below.  Spruce is also used to form woven hats.

Carved cedar poles contain likenesses of the Power Animals, which include animals of air, land, and sea; people; and spirits.  Each pole is a remembrance and an homage to  the power animals in place on it as well as to the family and clan of the owner that commissioned the pole.  They also capture events in history and may honor an entire community.  Carved poles are not idols to be worshipped, but documents of communication. Some people carved tablets, others carved trees. Carved poles are story tellers and as such, are considered people.

The Power Animals change in appearance a bit from Alaska to British Columbia mainland, to Vancouver Island, to the Queen Charlotte and other islands nearby and change again in Washington and northern Oregon.  Carved poles are different around the Hawaiian and Polynesian Islands, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, and Amur in Russia. 

Masster Carvers come from many nations among the First Nations and Native Americans, but a few of these Peoples are prolific. Interestingly, the greatest carvers that we know are of combined Native and European blood. Since poles last only about 100 years as a result of decomposition, it is difficult to know what happened along these lines before 1700.  There is only a hand drawn sketch or two from the early 1700s in one particular location. The rest of the related history is based in the oral tradition and many of these languages are becoming extinct.

Today, master carvers are appearing among native and non-native cultures and earning a good living in the carving arts.


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