Facts About the Different Totem Poles

totem pole with blue sky image by Ashle Whittle from Fotolia.com

Totem poles can be awe-inspiring sculptures that mainly derive from the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Though they can be remarkable in appearance alone, totem poles are not without purpose.

They serve a variety of purposes for indigenous people---symbolising great tales and legends, commemorating the dead, or serving as signs of shame.


Traditionally, totem poles are made of spruce or cedar. The tools used are generally sharp blades tied to wooden handles, existing in different sizes for various carving tasks. Black, red, blue, green, and brown are typical decorative colours. The paint was derived from various combinations of charcoal, iron or copper oxide and salmon eggs. After a totem's completion, an important ceremony would be held to celebrate the raising of the pole.

Crest Totem Poles

Crest totem poles usually serve as beacons for family ancestry. Certain clans or tribes harness unique emblems for their family. These tend to be carved into their particular totem poles, detailing history, strengths, or other significant events. The symbols on the totems tend to be a variety of native animals. The highest level consisted of the eagle or the raven clan. In order to distinguish between the two, you would have to notice the straight break of the raven and the curved beak of the eagle. Below these two clans existed others such as the fox, frog, elk, bear or beaver. It is commonly believed that the order, from top to bottom, reflected rank or importance.Totems would aid in distinguishing which clan the tribesmen belonged to.

Storytelling Totem Poles

This was one of the most common type of totem poles, constructed to detail an important event, such as a birth or a wedding, or used to preserve a piece of native history. Storytelling is an important oral tradition for Native Americans, while totem poles helped to illustrate such tales. Storytelling totems could explain everything from a people's culture, why things happened, where to find food, practices, laws, history, family associations, tribal boundaries and the relationships between man and beast and land and sky.

Mortuary Totem Poles

These totem poles were made to bring honour to those who had recently died. The ashes of the recently deceased were usually held in a small compartment in the back of the totem pole. These poles served a similar purpose as modern day urns. It was common for the totem poles to have one single representation of the deceased. They ranged in size from hand-held to multiple stories tall.

Shame Totem Poles

Shame poles, also known as ridicule poles, were used to make fun of or mock a villager or figure. Sometimes they were erected for those who did not finish paying off their debts. Occasionally, these indebted villagers would have their totem poles hanging upside down. If they paid their debts, the pole would be taken down, destroyed, or thrown into the forest. Such poles were rare, especially as time passed; Native Americans strove for peace rather than civil dispute. The Lincoln pole was a shame pole directed towards the United States government in Saxman, Alaska. The Native Americans felt the government should have repaid them for their losses.