Witchcraft, Worship or Public Shaming? The Puzzling Purpose of Totem Poles in North America

Totem poles are a type of monumental structure carved from the trunks of huge trees, especially the Western Red Cedar. These monuments are found in North America, specifically along its north-western coast, and are traditionally created by a number of Native American groups. Whilst the oldest totem poles that we know are from the 19th century, it has been suggested that this tradition has existed long before then. Totem poles are rich in symbolism and were used for a variety of purposes.

The Growth of the Poles

The carving of totem poles is a practice amongst certain Native American groups, including the Haida, the Chinook, and the Tlingit tribes. One theory that has been proposed is that this type of monument developed from the elaborate carvings of interior door posts, funerary containers, and memorial markers. During the 18th century, European travelers along the north-western coast of North America recorded seeing totem poles during their travels, though these were small and few in number. Today, however, no known totem pole dates to before the 1800s. The explanation for this is that the region’s climate is not conducive to the preservation of wooden artifacts, and serves to exacerbate the decay of these monuments.

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Tlingit totem pole in Ketchikan, Alaska, circa 1901

Tlingit totem pole in Ketchikan, Alaska, circa 1901 (Public Domain)

One of the important developments in the history of totem pole production is the introduction of metal tools. Prior to this, the totem poles made were much smaller in size, roughly equivalent to that of a walking stick. The use of metal tools, however, allowed the totem pole makers to create much larger monuments. It is unclear if these Native American groups first acquired metal tools from European settlers, or if they had recovered such tools previously from European shipwrecks. In any case, contact with Europeans enabled the Native Americans to obtain metal tools more easily.

Totem poles in Kitwancool, British Columbia

Totem poles in Kitwancool, British Columbia (CC BY 3.0)

In addition, the fur trade brought great wealth to the Native American tribes of the area. One of the ways in which this wealth was spent and distributed was through gift-giving feasts known as potlatches. These celebrations are often associated with the construction of totem poles. Such poles were erected to symbolise the wealth and social status of a leader, as well as the importance of his family and clan. Therefore, it may be said that the use of metal tools and the increase of wealth amongst the Native American tribes of the coast resulted in the production of more totem poles, which were also larger in size, quite different from what was observed by European travellers during the 1700s.

Totem poles in Stanley Park, Vancouver.

Totem poles in Stanley Park, Vancouver. (CC BY 2.0)

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