On the Totem Trail | People & Places | Smithsonian

On the Totem Trail

On the Totem Trail

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Totem poles, those giant red cedar poles elaborately carved with images of animals and people, can be thought of as three-dimensional family histories; histories that began in the time before people lived on the earth, when birds and animals spoke to each other; histories that tell of journeys from distant places, marriages and births, supernatural transformations and heroic deeds. For the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Nisga'a, Gitksan, Kwakiutl and other people living along the wooded shores and rivers of the Pacific Northwest, totem poles embody their tribal, clan, family and individual identities, and serve as visible reminders of the past and the present.

The figures carved on totem poles, some animals and some human, are family crests. A few families claim Raven, who brought light to the world; others, the Bear or Eagle or Killer Whale or Thunderbird—mighty beings who, through encounters with people in the distant past, founded powerful lineages whose creation stories are told today in song, in dance, and through oratory.

There are many kinds of poles—poles for the entrance of a house; mortuary poles, which sometimes contain a cavity in which the person's ashes are placed; ridicule poles to poke fun at an enemy; and, most often, poles to commemorate particular important events. The dedication and raising of a totem pole is accompanied by a great potlatch, a public feast often involving lavish gift giving.

No one knows how long totem poles have been made. A carved cedar pole left outdoors will decay in less than a hundred years, and we have no archaeological record to help with answers. But 18th-century voyagers to Alaska and Vancouver Island described and illustrated poles in their records, indicating that totem poles were clearly a well-established tradition at that time.

A hundred years ago totem poles nearly disappeared from their home villages. Some poles were taken to museums, while others decayed or were destroyed. But by the 1950s a remarkable cultural revival, led by a few gifted artists and some apprenticeship programs, revitalized not only the carving art but the songs, dances and ceremonies that give cultural meaning to the carving of a totem pole. Today, totem poles can be found in parks and heritage centers, in villages such as Ketchikan where older poles such as the Chief Kyan pole are being preserved, in museums and corporate headquarters all over the world, and in the homes of private collectors who have commissioned their own three-dimensional family histories.

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