Totem Poles History

There are totem poles that were made by the Aborigines, the earliest inhabitants in Australia as discussed by Carol Perkins in “Aborigines, Australian”. They are considered the natives of Australia. The term “aborigines” is a Latin word which is translated as “from the beginning”. This term is applied to any people who were the first inhabitants of any region or country. The Australoid were the ethnic group of the Australian Aborigines. Before the European settlers arrived, these Australian Aborigines roam the continent in search for food.

Their means of collecting food is through hunting animals and gathering any palatable plants. Most of these natives have physical characteristics that are unique from the present day Australians. They have brown skin and eyes. Their hair is dark and wavy.

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There are several theories on their travel to Australia and how and when they came to settle in the continent. There are evidences that indicate that these people may have lived in India and Malay Peninsula then traveled to Australia by raft of dugout canoe.These Australian aborigines had spread out in Australia and formed clans which are made up of extended family members. They have claimed territories where it has a watering place.

This watering place is very important fro them because water is scarce in Australia and the aborigines has a belief that their ancestor’s spirits remained near the watering place where their tribe has first settled. Each tribe was made up of several clans which consist of 30-40 people. Every clan had a totem or emblem which resembles a fish, a plant or an animal a totem served as a reminder for the clan’s ancestors and these were painted on shields and weapons. The animal or plant that was reflected on the totem was considered as member of the clan.

The aborigines have a belief that the people, animals, plants and even rocks were important parts of the spirit world and of nature (Perkins, 6a).The aborigines believed that human beings are part of nature and it is also associated intimately with other living things. This is one of the relationships that became the basis of the concept “Dreaming”, wherein totemism is one aspect. This concept refers to the time where the spirits that were mythical in nature, are believed to shape the land that they were in and thus establishing life (Berndt, 59).

There are also large totem poles, which were carved, that are present in Kitwancool of British Columbia. These are commonly found in villages of the Northwest Coast Indians. There are many distinct traditions in North American Indian art. These are developed by the native-American peoples in the continent.

There are several key concepts that are the basis of artistic expression of most groups. This is possible in spite of the diversity of the traditional cultures present in the continent. For these people, art has a social purpose. They use art in religious and other rituals and for them, it also expresses one’s status symbol in the society since it proclaimed the rank and political status of a person or of a family.

It also shows how wealthy the family is. In the Northwest Coast, the artistic totem poles were considered magical. It also served as a documentation of the lineage of the family and shows the social position of the patron who had the totem pole made (Brody, 139).A number of different peoples in the Northwest Coast share the art tradition of the area.

The religion is associated by a distinctive and elaborate tradition which is hundreds of years old. In this area, the art objects that were a pride of these people were used to identify the rank and were symbols of the wealth and status of the people. The monumental totem poles are one of the many art that were made by the professional artist in the area. Their art shows a generally curvilinear, a highly conventionalized mode which is also bilaterally symmetrical.

Their art also has a great emphasis on the textural qualities of the material used. They use wood and cedar barks from the immense forest of the Northwest (Brody, 139).There are also totem poles that are being preserved in the north America. These were made by the NorthAmerican Indians in the Far North and Northwest.

The American Indians, also called Native Indians, are considered the discoverer of the Americas, thus they were also the first inhabitants. It is believed that Indians have traveled from Asia to Alaska by the Bering land bridge during the Ice Age. Evidences showed that they have travelled from the west coast of North America all the way to the Southern tip of South America. American Indians have similar physical attributes with the Asians since they have the same descendants.

They have dark hair, dark eyes, and light brown skin. However, these features have varied due to the intermarriage of Indian American to the European settlers. Even before the Europeans arrived, the Indian American already had an established culture and languages. These too have been changed under the influence of the European settlers.

The Indian American communities were present before the Europeans arrived. It almost has the same number with the cities in Europe or Asia.In the North Pacific coastal region, Indian American have settled and formed a community. They have established a trade route which extended from Alaska down to Northern California and even to Asia.

Trading had enriched the culture of the American Indians. Northwest coast houses were made from enormous logs, thus it is higher as compared from those Iroquois longhouses. Related families share their belongings, i.e. house, food and equipment. However they have a separate cooking area. The American Indians n the North Pacific Coastal region is also rich in culture. The fronts of their houses are covered with paintings of spirits and heroes.

They also had their entrances painted like a mouth of a monster. Totem poles stood outside their houses. These are tall logs that are carved then painted into the likeness of the family’s ancient heroes. This history and importance of the family where the totem pole is located is being reflected (Kehoe, 189).

It was discussed in the article “Totem Pole” that for these people, a totem pole is a memorial object. It is carved usually from a large tree trunk. These could also be in a form of wooden planks which are also decorated or carved then painted upon the request of the family’s chieftain. Totem poles were also erected in memory of the family member who died and also to confirm the family’s lineage and their status symbol in the society.

The family adopts an animal which they regard as the guardian of the family thus they use it as a design that becomes the representation of the owner of the totem pole. This is also the reason behind the name of the totem pole.In “Totem Pole” article, it was cited that the totem poles that are present today have been built relatively recently. It was Captain James Cook who first described the crafts of the people living in the Pacific Coast.

He mentioned on the carved and the painted house fronts, the art on the doorways and some posts that were erect in front of the houses. It was also speculated that the totem pole erection was stimulated by the contact with the Europeans. Since the Europeans have brought new wealth and other materials that they offered to the chieftains, these have added to the wealth that the chiefs have accumulated. During this time, the elaborately carved and painted totem poles became the new means of displaying the prestige and status of the tribal leaders.

This was also been demonstrated through the potlatch ceremony of the American Indians. The professional carvers used steel blades and other tools that were introduced by the Europeans in making the more elaborate totem poles. During this time, there was a demand for taller and more complex totem poles. Due to their desire to display their wealth, families built more poles and there were even some large villages that boasted more than seventy poles.

There was a torrent display of wealth in the mid-1860s since there was an outpouring of wealth among the American Indians, as discussed in the article “Totem Pole”. Although the Europeans have brought with them great wealth, they have also brought diseases which was the reason of the decrease in population of the native Americans. Due to the conflict of belief, the Christian missionaries discouraged the carving of totem poles among the American Indians. The Canadian government also outlawed the potlatch ceremonies.

As a result of the increase tension between the American Indians and European settlers, the Native Americans have opted to leaved their houses and villages. Their totem poles decayed and some were even brought down to be used as firewood by the Europeans. The Europeans have realized the value of the totem poles in the trading market thus they removed it and sold it to the collectors around the world. This exploitation happened between 1870 and 1920.

Owing to the efforts of the people in British Columbia in Vancouver, in 1950 the University of British Columbia commenced a totem pole restoration project. They began to search and restore the remaining standing totem poles in their country. They also encouraged the carving of new totem poles to preserve the Native American heritage. In line with this, they have included in the curriculum of the schools in Vancouver teaching the traditional carving techniques.

Due to these efforts, there is now a growing interest in the totem pole craft as well as the culture and tradition and the arts of the American Indians.Due to this native American way of thinking, a complex system of ideas, symbols and practices which is based on a relationship between the human being and the natural object has become to be known as totemism, as discussed by John Saliba in “Totemism”. This way of thinking is also observed among the people in Malaysia, Africa and Guinea. However, it is exceptionally evident among the Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians.

These people often regard their totems as a guardian with supernatural powers and thus they have high regards to it. The descendants of these people may be traced to an original totemic ancestor which then becomes a symbol of the group.Totem Pole SymbolsIn the present day, there are several artists who still continue the art of making or carving totem poles. They use the symbols that were also used by the Native American Indian wood carvers.

One of these artists is George Gulli from Victor, Montana who is a second generation totem pole carver who still follows the traditional way of making totem poles. He also used the general symbols used in carving totem poles. Some of the symbols that he used are raven, sea turtle, thunderbird, eagle, wolf, bear, frog, otter, bear, owl, and killer whale. The raven symbolizes the mercurial trickster of Northwest Coast Native lore.

The sea turtle is the representation of Mother Earth and the thunderbird is a mythological bird, which is known to kill whales and creates lightning by blinking its eyes. The eagle means intelligent and resourceful while the wolf is considered to be a very powerful totem which helps people in need or sick. The bear symbolizes the teacher and the frog is known for bringing wealth. The otter is the symbol for laughter due to its mischievous nature and salmon is a symbol for instinct and persistence.

The owl is a symbol for respect and the killer whale is honored as a symbol of strength and braveness. These symbols were retrieved from the site of George Gulli in “Gulli, totem poles and carvings”. Totem Pole Building and MaintenanceIn the site of, it was discussed that the totem poles made today still uses the traditional way of erection.

They conduct a ceremony during the process of erection. A wooden scaffold is built for this purpose. Hundreds of men help together in hauling the pole in an upright position into its footing. Some men are also assigned in steadying the pole using beams formed into a cross.

After fastening the pole in a safe position in its location, a potlatch is being held. During this ceremony the artist of the said totem pole is being paid. During this moment also, the carver will do a celebratory dance around the pole while waving around the tools that were used for the creation of the totem pole. Before the pole was erected, the base was burned for rot resistance and for it to fasten well with the soil.

The fire that was used was made of wood chips that were carved from the pole itself.The common features that the totem poles share among other wooden crafts along the coast is the surface finish on the wood, as described in in “Construction and Maintenance”. This is the last step in making the totem pole and is also the most demanding part.

This judges the quality of the pole. This consists of fine cuts of which were incised in a parallel manner and all the unpainted surface of the pole were covered by this and also follows the contours of the sculpture. The surface finish of a pole is the main criteria for judgment of a fine and well sculptured pole. Other criteria are smoothness and regularity, ways the carver worked with the imperfections of the wood, and by the cleanliness of the adzing of the contours.

The surface finishing of a pole is universal along the entire coast regardless of the style of the pole. This is also a quick way to judge the authenticity of the pole and the experience of the carver.As imparted in in “Maintenance”, there is no traditional means in maintaining the totem poles after its erection.

In traditional ways, after the wood rots and leans to an angle where it poses danger to the people near by, the pole is either destroyed or being pushed over then removed. Some poles even fall over during the storms that hammer the coast. For preservation purposes, a collapsed pole is sometimes being replaced by a new one which resembles the old one. It should have the same subject matter but due to additional expenses, i. e. new payment for the carver and potlatch ceremony, the local government does not practice this often. Although some people regard the rotting of the poles as lack of maintenance, the natives believed that this is just a representation of the deterioration that all living things undergo through. For the natives, this is just a natural process of decay and death.

For them, this process should not be hindered because it is denying of the natural process that occurs in nature. However, some people opted to occasionally renew the paint and perform some restorations on the pole because they cannot afford to have another pole built. The owners of the totem poles today see the restoration as a necessary investment for their property thus they ignore the philosophical implications or meanings of the pole and its deterioration. It is important to treat the maintenance of the pole uniquely and the artist’s advice is also important with regards to the conservation of the pole.

Due to this conflict of beliefs some people have regarded the conservation of the totem poles as unethical. However, the Canadian government have conducted an action to preserve the poles since they have noticed that the Native American Indians have adopted the way of life that the white Americans have thus they have erected less and less totem poles over the years, as implied by Robert De Groat in “Preserving Totems”. They are afraid that the art of totem building will die out and so as the culture of these people.As De Groat discussed in “Presesrving Totems”, in the reconstruction of the totem poles, it is being supported by a small portable derrick while being cut off about the level of the ground.

The decayed part of the wood is being cut and a deep grove is being cut at the back of the pole. The surface of this grove is then treated with creosote for prevention of further decay. Another pole which is seasoned and large enough to support the old totem pole is used and also creosoted. It is then fitted to the grove at the back of the totem pole.

These two poles are then fastened with about six countersunk bolts. The heads of these countersunk bolts are being concealed by wooden plugs. The seams of the pole are being filled up with cedar strips, calked with oakum and plastic gum is used as a cover. The plastic gum is appropriate for this purpose because it seldom runs and it also doesn’t get very hard.

For De Groat in “Preserving Totems”, the important phase in the preservation of these valuable crafts is the cooperation of the natives in the area. Although the poles are a gift to humanity as a historical piece, it is still a property of the heirs of the families represented. These people may not understand the wisdom of the work thus their objections and suspicions must be put at peace before the work must initiate. The cooperation of the Indians is also vital in the protection of the pole after its restoration.

Up to this day, the purpose of the restoration of the totem poles are still being argued on but those people who are for the restoration of the poles are just mindful of the heritage that the future generation will be receiving. They are also hopeful that the restore poles will remain for so many years as monuments to this fast paced life and vanishing culture of the first inhabitants.The basis of this school of thought lies in the perspective of the societies that have a specific relationship between human beings and nature. This may be interpreted as a conceptual device for the social groups present in the native American Indian family.

This is also an evidence that the societies, although have different perceptions and rituals who draws their names from the identities of plants and animals, still remains as a whole. Totem Pole PreservationA concerted effort was done for the restoration of the totem poles. It was in the late 1930s that the U.S.

Forest Service became involved in the examination of the decayed totem poles and the assessment of the work to be done. They also examined the tribal houses that need to be preserved. The gathering of the information on the poles’ condition, so as with the houses, took them a couple of years and they also had a hard time locating the rightful owners of the poles. The identification of the rightful owners of the poles and houses was important because titles and documents are needed before the restoration.

Works Cited

  1. Perkins, Carol. “Aborigines, Australian”. New Book of Knowledge. (1992). Danbury Connecticut: Grolier Inc.: 6a.
  2. Berndt, Ronald M. “Aborigines, Australian”. Grolier International Encyclopedia. (1996). Danbury Connecticut: Grolier Inc.: 59.
  3. Kehoe, Alice Beck. “American Indians”. New Book of Knowledge. (1992).
  4. Danbury Connecticut: Grolier Inc.: 189.“Construction and Maintenance”. 2009.


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Totem Poles History. (2017, Mar 07). Retrieved from