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Totem Poles of the
Pacific Northwest Coast


by Edward Malin


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Excerpt from “The Practice Of Raising Carved Poles”


The raising of carved wood poles or columns is not a rare occurrence in human history. The Indians who lived along the Northwest Coast, therefore, were not alone in the utilization of sculptured vertical surfaces for social and other rites. For centuries many different peoples throughout the world carved and raised large vertical columns for various purposes. The threads which bind them together are the ideas that were associated with pole raising: to honor the deceased leaders and give their names special prestige and respect.

A cursory review of these global pole raisings reveals places as divergent as Nigeria and the Cameroons in West Africa and the Malagasy Republic, formerly Madagascar. There the tribal peoples raised wood columns depicting their leaders in various accomplishments. The carvings were placed for followers to acclaim and give homage to the great men of the tribe. Moving eastward from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific these practices become more commonplace. Poles were raised on the island of Nias, off the coast of Sumatra. They were found among the Dyaks in central Borneo, and in several corners of that colossal island, New Guinea. From the Asmat tribes located in the southwest corner of New Guinea to the Abelam and neighbors in the central headwaters of the Sepik River region of the north, one sees them. The Asmat in particular raised large poles, in excess of 30 feet in some instances, covered with ornate sculptures and polychrome painted surfaces. From New Guinea eastward to Ambrym and Malekula, in the New Hebrides and into New Ireland we learn of the former use of spectacular vertical sculptures. In New Ireland the native peoples once produced extremely complex, polychrome - not to say almost surrealistic - poles integrally associated with their mortuary rites. Eastward across central Polynesia carved columns can be found intermittently as far as New Zealand during aboriginal times.

However, in its most spectacular forms and in the intricate nature of its patterning, in the sheer monumental size, height, and girth of the logs used, and in the variety of forms they took, the Northwest Coast Indian tribes were the supreme masters and users of carved poles. Their forms, their surface design treatment, the complexity of their symbolism placed Northwest tradition in a class by itself. Here the totem poles achieved an artistic significance without parallel in human experience. Totem poles were one of the culture's crowning accomplishments.

Where the customs associated with pole raising originated, if they originated in a single region at all, we cannot say. Was there a common point of origin far back in time or did the practice emerge independently in several diverse cultural and geographic regions within various time episodes? I take the position of multi origins. However, this is not the focus of the present effort. It must remain for other scholars and future researchers to grapple with that question.


Some years ago I recall a lengthy conversation with perhaps the most astute student of totem poles at the time, Dr. Viola Garfield of the University of Washington. One evening discussing our mutual admiration for the Indian arts, Dr. Garfield emphasized repeatedly that anthropologically-speaking, the poles from the Northwest coast were not totems at all. It was far more to the point to refer to them as carved columns. Of course, over the years she lost the battle to change the nomenclature as her later publications disclose because the term "totem poles" was too deeply entrenched in the literature. Even so highly regarded a scholar as Dr. Garfield could not persuade writers to abandon the term.

What is a totem? In hundreds of tribal cultures throughout the world we find people who regard an object, often an animal, a plant, bird, or even a supernatural creature, as a special symbol. The social group embraces this symbol as belonging entirely to them and they identify with it throughout their lives. Their origin stems from such creatures. It is their "totem." The relationship, different though it may be from group to group and people to people, is based on their feelings of special respect mixed with awe, and most importantly, of avoidance, so as not to disturb, harm, or cause misfortune to befall their totem. Elements of this phenomenon were associated with the pole raising of the Northwest Coast Indians but only elements! The concept with the carving and raising of poles in its fullness was unevenly distributed among the various tribes.

What then is a totem pole? The totem pole of the Northwest Coast Indians was a large carved column raised by a lineage or clan for the purpose of commemorating an event, historical or mythological, within an entirely social (not religious) order. Some of the symbols might have totemic meaning. But the vast proportion of symbols relate to a group's social affiliations and status. Some poles depicted only single while others related multiple episodes associated with the historic or quasi historic traditions of a group.

Since the poles incorporated countless symbols that were not totemic, the term totem pole, as Dr. Garfield pointed out, technically is a misnomer. We intend to use the words totem pole or carved column to refer to the same thing. If I had employed the term carved columns little interest would be shown in what follows. But totem poles — that is another story.

Totem poles, then, are not only a subject of artistic and cultural interest today. They represent the evolution of powerful forms of immense intrinsic complexity dealing with the fundamental forces which shape the human condition. They are intimately bound up with numerous facets of life: kinship ties and associations; birth, maturity, and death; inheritance rights and privileges; class distinctions and honors; personal values and motivations an intricate web of social relationships and attitudes with long standing traditions. They could be regarded as double entendres to those who viewed them; subtle or blatant, intimidating or comforting, implicit or explicit in their messages. The viewer's understanding and perceptions evoked by the poles would depend in part on where he stood relative to the culture of which he was a part, outside the bounds or securely locked within them. This multi dimensioned story unfolds in the chapters that follow.



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