Totems of the Pacific Northwest

TotemA natural object, such as an animal or bird, used to represent a clan, family or group

The peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast carved the likeness of their totems onto vast poles. The function of totem poles varied, but overall they were historical monuments and documents. They displayed origins, lineages, supernatural experiences, exploits and acquisitions. In addition they gave the people their status in their nation and within their village. The figures recorded the past, displaying it in the present and preserving it for the future.

The first totem pole known to science was seen on Langara Island, Queen Charlotte Islands in 1791. In 1792, seaman John Bartlett wrote, “We went ashore where one of their winter houses stood. The entrance was cut out of a large tree and carved all the way up and down. The door was made like a man’s head and the passage the house was between his teeth.”

It is thought that totem poles derive from three contributing sources: carved house posts, graveyard figures and miniature carvings of stone, ivory, and wood. They included shaman’s charms, chiefs’ staffs, batons, ladle handles, and canes.

We have many theories, but little evidence concerning the origins of totem poles. However, once the custom became a part of tribal ritual, it flourished. Before the end of the18th century, travelers encountered monumental carvings in cedar along a coastal expanse of one thousand miles.

Many of the crests used in Pacific Northwest Coast carvings have their origins in the ancient myth. According to these tales, it was a time before the world was as it is now; a time when humans and animals were not separate and distinct; and when they could transform easily from one to another. A family obtained its “origin” crest from an early ancestor who had a memorable adventure of encounter with a supernatural creature. This adventure often entailed the ancestor’s overcoming and killing the creature, or the creature becoming human to establish the lineage.

However, a crest could also be acquired through marriage. Other ways that a family and/or chief obtained a new crest or totem was through the conquest of an enemy, or by trade. In some cases another family or chief gave it as compensation for special services, or they appropriated the crest at the extinction of the original owner’s family. Outstanding episodes of family history, migrations and settlement, war adventures, resource ownership or special visions could generate new crests.



The original Pacific Northwest Totem Poles will soon be on view at the Red Earth Native American Museum & Gallery in downtown Oklahoma City next to the historic Skirvin Hilton Hotel at 6 Santa Fe Plaza.  

To learn more about Native American myth, folklore and culture, you may wish to make reading selections from the following list.

Only the Names Remain: the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears by Alex W. Bealer and illustrated by Kristina Rodanas. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1996.

Indian Chiefs by Russell Freedman. New York: Holiday House, 1987.

Happily May I Walk: American Indians and Alaska Natives Today by Arlene Hirschfelder. New York: Scribner's, 1986.

Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle with paintings by Susan Jeffers. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Children of the Earth and Sky: Five Stories about Native American Children written by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by James Watling. New York: Scholastic, 1991.

Star Tales: North American Indian Stories about the Stars retold and illustrated by Gretchen Will Mayo. New York: Walker, 1987.

Spirit Walker poems by Nancy Wood and paintings by Frank Howell. New York: Delacorte, 1993.