Totem Poles

Totem Poles
Totem Poles
In 1778, British explorer Captain James Cook became one of the first Westerners to enter a Pacific Northwest Coast "post and beam" house, and write about it. He was particularly struck by the carved house posts. "These are nothing more than trunks of very large trees...set up singly, or by pairs, at the upper end of the apartment. with the front carved into a human face; the arms and hands cut out upon the sides, and variously painted; so that the whole was a truly monstrous figure."

The tradition of massive, functional house posts with carved reliefs eventually moved outdoors to decorative carvings that didn't support roofs and walls, but stood alone. We call these totems. Totem poles are massive red cedar trunks that have been felled, stripped of the bark and carved with totems (or crests) of kinship groups: frog, beaver, wolf, grizzly bear and killer whale. Totems were brightly colored. Traditionally they were painted in red, black, green, white and yellow. Red came from the mineral ochre, powdered and mixed with oily salmon eggs. Black came from graphite, charcoal or lignite.

Totem pole carving was traditionally undertaken only by men, and often by  men hired from neighboring villages or peoples. Poles demonstrated the resources of the person able to commission one. They also passed on Tlingit culture and history in the same way stained glass windows passed on Bible stories to medieval European congregations.
Eagle, Chief, Bear with Shield Totem Pole
Shield Totem Pole by Fred Trout
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Thunderbird Totem Pole
Thunderbird Totem Pole by Larry Rudick

What is a Native Alaska Totem Pole? (Click Here)