Native American totem poles

Native American totem poles: a work of art

Hello all!

I hope you are doing good and are enjoying all of what Mother Earth has to offer πŸ™‚ For those of you who do not know, I live in Vancouver, BC, a city filled with the Native culture, the culture of the Indigenous Pacific Northwest native people but also of a lot of different nations. The cultures are alive and there to be known. And I think that is just awesome that I get to live in such a place! In this beautiful city, there is also an equally beautiful famous park named Stanley Park. It is a gorgeous park surrounded by the Pacific ocean with numerous attractions for all. Including the Vancouver aquarium, a pool, a lighthouse and most importantly beautiful displays of Native American art. Yes I am taking about beautifully crafted and carved totem poles. A whole bunch of them for your viewing. Indeed, Native art is everywhere to be seen in this city I live in. Let’s discuss this Pacific northwest art, more specifically Native American totem poles.

totems in Stanley Park

totems in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC

Native American art in Vancouver

I love my city and I cannot hide it πŸ™‚ The Native culture is so alive in Vancouver that no matter where you are, you will see beautiful displays of art. From your arrival at the Vancouver international airport, you will be surrounded by sculptures and totem poles made by local artists. See a few examples below. Those sculptures are scattered throughout the airport and provide a wonderful sight to visitors. As for me, they represent home.

Raven house posts

Raven house posts by Roy Henry Vickers, red cedar-1990

Flight spindle whorl

Flight Spindle Whorl by Susan A Point, red cedar-1995

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once one leaves the airport, it only takes a walk through the city core to run into randomly placed Northwest Native sculptures literally on the corner of streets. Public art is alive and colorful. Each sculpture comes with a title and the artist name. Believe me I tried finding pictures of them but I was not able to. I have to say that most of them are of birds such as an eagle. Not all of them have a native design but some do. I will just have to go take a picture of some of them and add them later πŸ™‚ But how cool is that? Public art right on the streets. Native art is so present in Vancouver that pretty much every prison I have worked in had a totem pole!

Stanley park

totem pole Stanley park

totem pole Stanley park

And then there is Stanley park. A little piece of heaven with 8 km of trails alongside the ocean (called the Sea wall). Kind of hard to beat that one….Stanley park is just perfect for an afternoon picnic, a visit to the aquarium, a day at the pool or the beach OR for an afternoon looking at the beautiful Pacific Northwest art on display. Literally in the middle of the park. Indeed, the totem pole display is one of the main attractions. It features beautiful pieces by local artists. The display began in the 1920’s with just 4 totem poles from Alert Bay on the Vancouver Island. The display grew over the years, with the addition of totems from the Queen Charlotte islands, also called the Haida Gwaii islands (hence the name Haida art) and the Rivers Inlet. Some poles were actually carved in the late 1880’s and were loaned to the park.

Serendipity and Orchids

Serendipity and Orchids

Finally, greeting you at the entrance of the display, you will find the Coast Salish gateways, carved by local artist Susan Point (see her work at the airport above). On the inside, male and female figures greet visitors with the traditional Coast Salish greeting (raised and outstretched arms).

Coast Salish greeting

Coast Salish greeting

On the outside, you will see a dancer with a sea serpent rattle and a thunderbird on top and on the picture below you see three grandmothers facing six grandchildren.

dancer and thinderbird

dancer and thunderbird

grandmothers and grandchildren

grandmothers and grandchildren

A bit of history on Native American totem poles

Well before we start, let’s clarify that contrary to what some people think, totem poles originate and can mostly be found on the West Coast of Turtle island. Washington, Alaska and British Columbia. Those are the type of places you will find totem poles. Plains or Southwest Indians did not carve totems. Why? Well just think of the types of trees on the West coast. Freakishly tall ones! With lots of good wood for carving such as cedar. Therefore, carvers will be mostly Northwestern or Alaskan. Not all of them but most of them. There is also a debate on whether or not totem poles existed before the arrival of Europeans. It is hard to prove as wood decays over time. But most oral stories will say that yes totem poles did exist before the arrival of Europeans. However, the size of totems probably grew with the arrival of woodcarving tools.

So yes in BC, totem poles are everywhere. There is even a gorgeous one in front of a flooring store two minutes from my house! They are scattered throughout the province. They are gorgeous pieces of native art, if not expensive pieces of art. Probably some of the most expensive native art you will find. But just think of the quantity of wood used (often cedar) and the amount of time spent on carving and painting it. Then the price makes some sense. For example, when I worked for a school district, two artists set up camp in one of the school’s yard to carve a totem. They were there for a week straight working away. And that is for a unpainted totem….For totem poles of different sizes though, you can visit this site for work from Alaskan artists.

thunderbird and killer whale totem

Thunderbird and killerwhale totem

What about the animals?

On many totem poles, you will find animals. Now we have to think in terms of relations. What I mean by that is that animals are our relations, as we are all related. Thus animals including birds are there to guide us. We just need to listen. Animals accompany us throughout our life. Depending on what is going on in your life, you might notice a certain animal more frequently around you or you might feel a connection to a certain animal. Those are situations that one needs to pay attention to. The animals will guide you and help you complete your journey. I can totem polesay that for me, I often see or hear birds such hawks. Owls also have a special meaning to me. Both are thought to be messengers and related to intuition. Hawks and owls are also known for their clairvoyance or insight. Further, owls are related to deception and bad events. However, they can also warn against bad events and foresee some. They sometimes come to warn you. Some say that owls are a sign of death. But I see it more as a bird that foresees, warns and helps you see all sides of a situation or a person.

totem pole

Anyhoo…. that is just me. But it is worth paying attention to your relations around you, see if you notice a pattern or one who is popping up more often. How does this all relate to totem poles you ask? Well sometimes people will say that they have a totem animal or a spirit animal. What they mean is that they connect to one animal in particular and that animal is their guide. There is a connection with that particular animal. Whether in reality, in dreams or in characteristics. You can also type in “what is my totem animal” in Google and you will find a ton of quizzes to find out. They vary in length and I would not vouch for their validity. I tried a few and got wolf, deer and eagle…So just go with your own experience, see if you feel a connection to a particular animal or bird. It does not have to be an animal you spend a lot of time with, but more of an animal which lessons you are open to. For some of you, you will know right away what your animal is. For others, it will not be such a quick process. Think of an animal that you see or hear in your life, one you feel a connection to, one you see in dreams, one you collect figurines of, one who might have attacked you in the past. And if you cannot come up with anything, then take the quizzes πŸ˜‰

totem pole

 

Any thoughts about totem poles? Ever seen some from up close? Comment below πŸ™‚

All my Relations

 

 

34 thoughts on “Native American totem poles

  1. Catherine

    Really informative post Emily. Stanley park is what made me fall in love with Vancouver and why I want to move there someday. From what I remember totem poles hold a deep meaning, they represent a spirit or something that might of happened, a myth or an experience, often related to ancestors or traditions.

    I had a class last semester on Canadian Aboriginal law, and have also studied psychology (where I had taken a class on the same subject but looking at the psychology angle). The traditions, and the symbolic meanings behind their cultural beliefs is something fascinating and beautiful. It’s captivating to learn about.

    I look forward to read more from you.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Catherine
      we do seem to have the background as I have done 8 years in psychology in university! Vancouver is just gorgeous! I would not move for the world. And the Native culture is so present, its beauty is everywhere

      Reply
      1. Catherine

        Hi again Emily,
        I don’t think I’d be able to leave either if I had the chance to live in Vancouver. You are very lucky πŸ™‚
        I was too curious, I went into google and looked up β€œwhat is my totem animal”. I seem to be an owl or some type of fish every time. The both make much sense.
        Thanks for putting me on that track, I need to read more into it, but it’s so interesting how much we can learn about ourselves.
        Cheers!

        Reply
        1. Emily Post author

          hi again!
          I certainly recommend a visit to Vancouver, even if it is just for a few days. Love owls too! as long as it makes sense to you that is the important part πŸ™‚

          Reply
  2. Jeffrey Spencer

    Such an awesome post! I really love all the totem pole pictures. Honestly, I didn’t know the actual meaning of a totem pole until I read your post. It totally makes a lot of sense now. I knew native americans really were spiritually connected to animals. I never really thought about it, but I will start paying attention to what animals are around me at certain times, or birds etc..I have never actually seen a totem pole in person. It would be awesome to visit Canada and check them out. Great job. Jeffrey

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Jeffrey!
      thanks for dropping by, glad you could learn a bit about totem poles! Animals sure are our relations, I bet if you start paying attention, you will notice some signs πŸ™‚

      Reply
  3. Matt

    Hi Emily,

    Great post! I’ve always been fascinated by totem poles, not just by the symbolism behind them but also for their artistry. They really are quite unique among Native Americans. Do you find a lot of differences between Alaskan and BC totem poles? If so, do these differences represent specific cultural institutions, behaviors, or historical events?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Matt!
      thanks for dropping by! The artistry of totem poles is just amazing. You ask good questions. Sometimes the totem will tell a story, which might vary slightly depending on where the artist is from. The stories might be family stories, depict stories of ancestors using different animals and the carving style might vary a tad as well. But overall, the Pacific Northwest style is pretty recognizable.

      Reply
  4. Jared

    I lived in BC for a while. Though I never made it to Vancouver. I was in the Trail/Castelgar/Nelson area. Even still though there was some Native influence out there. I love the totem poles, I think they are breath taking! Thank you for sharing so much about the Native culture with us.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hello Jared
      the region you lived in is a gorgeous area too πŸ™‚ Totem poles are indeed just stunning. True work of art and dedication from the artist. Come back to visit anytime πŸ™‚

      Reply
  5. Demi

    Hi Emily..Again such an interesting post. So far I haven’t seen any Totem pole but I wish to see after reading your article. I have heard about Stanley Park from a cousin who stays in Vancouver. Looks like I gotta plan a trip to Vancouver πŸ™‚

    Reply
  6. Chris

    I Googled what Totem Animal are you and I got equal results for a wolf and bear. I think that makes sense since I am drawn to dogs. I also fear them. To me dogs are loyal and resilient.
    Those Totem poles are amazing. I would love to visit BC one day.
    There seems to be common themes that run through the aboriginal cultures all over the world. Where I come from the native people find healing by visiting the land that has historical significance to them. Carvings similar to your Totem poles adorn their meeting houses.
    Thank you for this wonderful post.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Chris!
      thanks for stopping by! I would say that an totem animal is a personal one. In the sense that it often makes sense to the person if it does not make sense to others. For example, with me and the owl, people will often say:”why would you want an owl? It’s a messenger of death”. But to me, it represents more than that and has a deeper meaning. The land is everything to the Native people. Mother Earth is our mother, we borrow the land from our children, it is the land our ancestors walked upon, shed blood on. There is nothing more sacred than the land

      Reply
  7. Marc

    Hey Emily

    Thanks for some wonderful information!

    Native American totem poles are something that I have only ever had the privilege of seeing in movies, but they are truly beautiful and intriguing.

    Then history, stories and relations to animals could keep me busy for hours getting lost in the detail of each totem pole. I can only imagine the hours of effort and thought behind each one.

    Keep up the great work!

    Cheers,
    Marc

    Reply
  8. CarolynCal1

    I didn’t know that totems were from the west coast, thanks for the info! I used to associate them to Canadian aboriginal culture in general.
    When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a “strong” totem animal, like bear and wolf. With time, I realised that all of these animals symbolize something far from what we first think based on their looks. I just have to ask a few people to see how different our perceptions of an animal are. For example, some will describe dogs as playful and friendly while others see them as fierce and dangerous. Guess it resonates with our own fears or expectations. Hope I’m gonna come across a totem soon so I can see what it is telling me.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Carolyn
      thank you for stopping by. You are absolutely right, the meaning of the animal is not directly related to their physical appearance. It’s not as straight forward as that. And as you mentioned, different people will have different experiences with the animals.

      Reply
  9. Peggy Menke

    Hi, Emily. This is a really impressive article. I have Native American blood from Shawnee and Cherokee from my Father’s side of the family. I love reading about the American Indians and their history. I love all the colorful photos of the totem poles. I have bookmarked your website so I can come back. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    Reply
  10. Laura

    Hi Emily,

    That’s such a sad story. And unfortunately not a singular one. It doesn’t matter the color: red, white, yellow…. People are only people. It seems like a stage in our evolution on this planet. With awareness and will power, we can go beyond our conditioning… It’s a slow process, but history shows it is possible.
    If Red Man will not make it, his son’s life will surely be different, and he will live his dream through his son. Love makes it possible.
    Maybe this was the reason of his coming into this life. To make the transition. To learn and teach others. A life he had chosen before coming here.

    Laura.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Laura
      I think you meant to post this on my other post Use Go Fund me: The Red man’s journey.
      Hi story is indeed not unique. I wish it was but it is not. Awareness needs to happen and just talking about it. So others see they are not alone. It is said that what we do affects seven generations. It is up to him to turn things around so the next generations feel it.

      Reply
      1. Laura

        OMG, you’re right. I’m sorry for misplacing it. I read many posts on your site, and probably that’s why I put it in a different place.
        But if it reached you, it’s ok, right? πŸ™‚
        You are doing a very good job here, I am a fan of red people, so I’ll be following you.
        Laura

        Reply
  11. Nnamdi

    Hello Emily,

    Once again, when I was browsing through your site, I came across this beautiful and interesting post, Native American Totem Poles. And I was wondering why I didn’t notice it all these time I have been visiting your site. But then, it occurred to me you have other similar interesting posts that have attracted my attention.

    The way you narrated this city of yours makes me to want to come to Canada for a vacation, lol. Seriously, the aquarium; I love aquarium, and the rare art of the Native Americans are something to behold I think. I hope I can make it some day and see for myself all these beautiful places that you mentioned.

    Keep it up.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Nnamdi!
      You should visit Vancouver lol! It is a gorgeous city for sure! The aquarium and the totem poles are worth it πŸ™‚

      Reply
  12. Jason

    Hi Emily,

    A beautiful post from a beautiful city. I have never visited but it’s definitely on my bucket list! Your explanation of the Totem was terrific. While I’ve never seen a Totem pole for real they remind me very much of my home culture in Aotearoa (NZ).

    Our culture also has a history of intricate carvings, each with their own distinct meanings.
    Some of the (sort of) similarities I see are:

    On most canoes, which the ancestors travelled from Hawaiki there was always the Totem (Parata)
    being a realistic head of the ancestors to guide the canoe and bring safe passage. These Parata were also usually added to the highest point of the Whare Nui (big house) in the Marae. They were the watchful eyes of the ancestors

    Inside the Marae the walls are decorated with rows of weaving and interspersed with Poupou
    (Wall panels) . Each Poupou represents ancestors related to the particular iwi (clan) and the way they are carved and the various included elements tell a story about the ancestor and his/her life story.

    The Teko Teko is used again as a method of commemorating ancestors but are usually carved in postures of war dances with tounges thrust out , or carrying clubs or spears. All in defiance of an enemy – designed to warn other iwi’s of the strength of the relations and to come in peace – rather than an act of aggression.

    We also have great spiritual attachment to birds or the Manaia. The Manaia is a mysterious and spiritual
    birdlike figure and placed in corners of rooms to ward off any negative energies or malevolent spirit.

    The most famous and probably visually similar are the Pare. The Pare was placed above the door outside the Whare Nui and depicts a legend or an historic event associated with an ancestor of the house. The Pare’s are revered and usually extremely as they are handed down from one house to another.

    My favourite and last (apologies for the length) are the Tongues. Many people when they first visit a Marae ask – why do they carvings all have their tongues poking out?
    A single tongue poking out is simple, it’s an act of defiance. A warning to come in peace. My favourite is the double tongue (Arero Roa). A double tongue was given to a revered ancestor and it meant that this person was a very important orator on the Marae. In the days of the ancestors there was no written language so knowledge was passed on in the form of stories and legends. The orator knew that for his story to be remembered he had to make it interesting and therefore everyone knew that half the story was basic truth and the rest was exaggerated window dressing hence the saying… he spoke with two tongues.

    I’d love to attach pictures but sadly I cant – probably assumes I’m trying to send something not allowed lol.

    Thanks for another great post..

    Jason

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Jason!!
      thank you so much for sharing such an important cultural and historical piece of your home base!! I will have to look into all of this more now as it is so interesting! You are right, the oral tradition is strong within the Native culture. It was deemed insulting if one was to take notes as one was talking. The message was passed down orally and you just had to listen and pay attention. Stories had a meaning and you had to listen for it. Love the tongues, I now want one in my house πŸ™‚

      Reply
  13. Neal

    I love this post, not only does it really make me want to visit Vancouver, it is also very informative! It is interesting how geography and available resources helped to form this amazing art form. I also love how you talked about the significance of the animal symbology, like the bird that guides us. Very eye opening! Can’t wait to read more!

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Neal!
      yes do come visit Vancouver πŸ™‚ The Native people have always used what Mother Earth provides them, responsibly. So it makes sense that the tall trees that we have would be used here. Do come back any time!

      Reply
  14. Mark Lefroy

    I work on Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver, where we have the Hiwus Feast House– a place where we bring school groups to learn about Northwest Coast Indigenous culture. Recently, a couple of guests have asked why the carving of the human, and of the wolf inside the Feast House had their tongues sticking out. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it represents the personification of the passing on of Knowledge, which makes sense in a culture which has oral traditions. According to another source, it means “Welcome”, which is also very appropriate in that setting

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Mark!
      Thanks for the information! I also live in Vancouver and am surrounded with the beautiful totems. I think the explanation makes sense. As it is an oral tradition, where information is passed down orally. Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Reply
  15. Ann Hollinger

    Hello Emily,
    I love this article on Totem Poles. So much information.I absolutely love all your articles. Each one is better than the last. I can hardly wait until the next one. I hope you are feeling much better by now. Did you have any broken bones?I am looking forward to my next Powwow,we are going to the one in New York in August. I’m taking my grandson, I am so hoping there will be young children there. He’s only 5 but he works this computer better than me. He likes all the music and dancing on fb. I told my Doctor about the Powwow in August. His grandchildren live there so he’s going and his family. Well I’m going to work on my garden while sun is not out. Be well. Thank you for sharing. It’s very nice of you.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Ann!
      Thank you so much for your warm comment. It really warms my heart that you like my articles! I am feeling a bit better. I had no broken bones but lots of pain and soreness and stiffness. But I am recovering. I was incredibly lucky though. Oh there will be kids at the Pow wow! There are always kids πŸ™‚ There are a few coming up here in the next 2 months so that’s where I will be πŸ™‚

      Reply

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