Totem Poles

Totem poles represented family lineages and privileges; they told the story of the people that lived in the houses. Chiefs competed with other chiefs with having taller and more detailed totem poles. Carvers were in great demand to create these rich works of Art. There are different types of totem poles, each with a different function:

Mortuary poles were used for high-ranking individuals or chiefs. These poles had large cavities cut out of the upper portion and carved with crests of the deceased. The deceased body is placed into a painted box and remained in a mortuary house for a period of one year. The remains were then moved to a smaller box and placed into the cavity of the pole. The front opening was covered with cedar boards and then painted or carved to complete the original design.

Memorial poles stood on their own with a crest depicting achievements of a deceased chief. The pole was raised one year after his death.

House posts were carved with symbols of family history and were positioned at the rear of the house. People outside of the villages, such as institutions or private collectors, commission modern poles. The traditional Art of these poles are appreciated by people in many cities and countries of origins other than First Nations.

A totem pole is to be read from the top down. The man on top is not necessarily high ranking and the largest figure would be the one that is featured in the story. The smaller figures are sometimes fillers and have some function in the story. The stories associated with the figures originate with the carvers and most of the documentation is lost with time.

The “Watchmen” can be identified as three men wearing tall hats sitting at the top of tall totem poles, attached to the chiefs house. The main function was to warn the chief and the villagers of danger. The middle watcher faced the ocean to search for incoming canoes from other villages, and the other two kept watches over the village.

Bill Reid totem pole

Acknowledgements: Argillite by Douglas Wilson, Potlatch by Steltzer, Islands at the Edge by the Islands Protection Society, Ninstints: Haida World Heritage Site by George McDonald, Bill Reid, Beyond the Essential form by Karen Duffek, Totem Poles by Hilary Stewart, Haida: Their Art and Culture by Leslie Drew.

Categories: Haida Culture

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