How to Make an Easy Totem Pole

Updated November 21, 2016

According to Native American tradition, totem poles identify tribes to one another with combinations of carved, stylised animals. The animals on the poles represent different family groups in the tribe as well as characteristics of the tribe. For instance, a bear may mean strength and a thunderbird may represent fierce warriors. You, too, can create a totem pole that represents your family or your Native American heritage. Try creating an easy, miniature totem pole from household items and art supplies.

Rinse and remove the labels from up to five empty soup cans. Wash thoroughly to eliminate all soup residue, and let the cans air dry. Any residue left in the cans may mould and ruin your artwork.

Fill one of the cans with sand; this is the bottom can. Run a bead of hot glue around the top lip and press the second can into the first. Repeat until all of the cans are glued together. Glue the top can on upside-down so your totem pole is closed. The sand in the bottom can helps the pole stand upright.

Roll out pieces of clay as tall and three times as wide as each of your cans. Wrap each can in the clay and smooth the edges together with your fingers. Cover the top of the can tower with a circle of clay. Smooth those edges with your fingers, too.

Sketch animals into each can section with a Popsicle stick or the handle of a paintbrush. Animals usually range from largest to smallest. For instance, your succession might be bear, cougar, fox, turtle, owl. Totem poles always have a bird on top.

Finalise the details in each of your animals, carefully adding fur patterns, teeth and geometric designs. Allow the totem pole to air dry overnight.

Paint the totem pole with tempera paints. Start with the base colour for each animal. Once dry, paint in the details in other colours. If your base colour is very dark, paint your details in white first. This helps the other colours stand out.

Things You'll Need

  • Empty soup cans
  • Water
  • Sand
  • Hot glue
  • Air-dry clay
  • Carving tools: Popsicle sticks, spoons, stamps
  • Tempera paints
  • Paintbrushes
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