If you see large carved poles at various places, you might stop to wonder what is the purpose of a totem pole. Is it just for show or does it store something? All such questions will be answered here.
1. Definition of Totem Pole
A totem pole can be defined as a pole or a pillar that is carved and painted with a series of totem symbols that represents family lineage or incidents that are mythical or historical. These are often built by wild Indian tribes of the northwest coast of North America. Read here to learn more about What is a Totem pole?
2. History of Totem Pole
The totem pole has served as an important illustration of family lineages and serves as a cultural heritage for the native people of the islands and coastal areas of the North American Pacific Northwest. It is especially used in the parts of Canada, British Columbia, and also the coastal area of Washington and south-eastern areas of Alaska in the United States. (See What’s a Hippie?)
The families of classic carvers come from Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl), Nuxálk (Bella Coola), Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), and many others. These are the biggest but not the sole object used by the native people living in a coastal geographic area to depict their nonsecular reverence, family legends, sacred beings & culturally vital animals, people, and historical events. Read the next section to know what is the purpose of a totem pole? (Also read Why Do Asians Use Chopsticks?)
3. Purpose of a Totem Pole
So, what is the purpose of a totem pole? The pillar symbolizes the events and characters from history and mythology. They also convey the experiences of the recent ancestors of the living individuals and families. Some of these characters or carvings might appear in a stylized representation of objects while some of these might be carved more realistically. These carvings can include:
- different animals like beaver, bear wolf; birds like raven and eagle;
- fish like shark, and whale;
- insects like a mosquito;
- plants and humans.
- supernatural beings like the Thunderbird
- beings that can transform themselves into another form, appearing as a combination of animals or part-animal/part-human form like Centaur.
4. The Making of a Totem Pole
Now that you know what is the purpose of a totem pole, let’s understand how it is made. When a group decides to make a totem pole for any occasion, they choose a tree that will be used in the process. They then cut down that tree and send it to a carving site where they remove the outer layer of the wood, i.e., sapwood along with its bark, and the back half of the tree. They carve the side of the tree as well. To avoid it from cracking and make it lighter, they keep the centre of the log hollow.
Before the beginning of the late 1700s, tools used for carving totem poles consisted of stones and bones. People used to paint the basic design on the wood in order to guide the carver. But since the invention of iron tools, the process of making totem poles became faster and easier. Nowadays, paper patterns are used for the design, and chainsaws are used to smooth out the rough shapes and cuts. (See Why Japan is Called Land of Rising Sun?)
5. Different styles of Totem Poles
There are different types of totem poles that symbolize different things, such as:
- House frontal poles are usually 20ft to 40ft tall. The carvings tell stories of the families, clans, or villages who own them. These are also called the heraldic, crest, or family poles. These are usually placed outside the clan house of the most important village leader.
- Mortuary poles are the rarest kind of pole as they are of mortuary structure that incorporates grave boxes with carved supporting poles. These are the tallest and most prominent poles with heights reaching from 50 to 70 ft. These poles have a single figure that is carved at the top, which depicts the clan’s crest. The carving on these poles usually covers its entire length. The body or the ashes of a deceased person are placed in the upper portion of the pole.
- Memorial poles usually stand in front of clan houses. They are constructed about a year after a person has died. The purpose of the totem pole is to honor a deceased person and their relative who is supposed to take over as his successor in the clan and the community. It is a tradition that there is one carved figure at the top in a memorial pole, but it may also have another figure that is added to the bottom of the pole.
- Welcome poles are usually carved like a human figure standing tall at a height of 40 feet. They are found near beaches to welcome incoming guests and to intimidate unknown strangers.
- Shame/Ridicule Pole as the name suggests were carved to shame or ridicule one or many people, sometimes a group, when they did something wrong like not paying their debt. They are placed in a location of prominence after the redemption of the induvial is met.