Talk:Totem pole

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Without diverse visual examples, this page cannot describe the process of Totem Pole creation. It is not crystal clear what they are for-- nor clear who and what they represent in each picture. That is not worthy of an encyclopedia. Without pictures that really represent the work of each tribe mentioned, we are not upholding a curator's standard of respectability. The fact that this political art (political between tribes, that is-- it serves a bordering and territorial function) is outdoors, does not preclude the idea that is part of a living museum. Archaelogist would at this embarrassment, and natives don't like it either. The relationship between the potlach and the poles is unclearly stated. I couldn't reference what resources I would need to build a properly constructed Totem Pole from this article. Where are the links to tribal councils who would approve of the building process? Where are the links to university libraries, and anthropological authorities on tribal practice?

Someone added textbook passages, and this is a no-no on Wikipedia. Plagiarism must be removed wherever it is discovered. It's not the copyright, stupid. It's the fact this stuff is just plain wrong.

I just reverted your edit (at least, the edit from the same IP address). It contained way too much POV argumentation. There were some good things which weren't but it was all mixed together.
You raise some interesting points that are worth discussion, but simply posting opinions as fact is not acceptable. If you want to continue the discussion here please do so. — Jéioosh 00:28, 13 March 2006 (UTC)
and please ask some questions
18:12, 4 January 2017 (UTC) (talk)

Ownership and permission[edit]

Just did a big rewrite. This article needs to be read over by others. Please make corrections and leave comments. Post questions below for anything that seems vague or unclear. I will also add some references at some point, although much of what's written here is off the top of my head. I'm no expert but I've lived with totem poles and have been taught about them all my life so I know more than enough to give plenty of accurate, verifiable details.

Something that needs some serious consideration is the image problem. By this I mean that images of totem poles and other NW Coast art, though allowed by Canadian and U.S. law, are not allowed without permission under the laws and customs of most NW Coast cultures. So most of the images in Wikipedia should be cleared by cultural representatives to be totally proper. There may be even be some legal precedent, at least in the U.S., for implied copyright of native designs, but IANAL. I can probably get permission for most of the Tlingit and Haida works that belong to Alaskan groups from Sealaska/CCTHITA or clan representatives, but I can't do so for B.C. or Washington art. And I'm pretty sure that permission to display the designs won't be released under any GFDL-type license; only for Wikipedia use.

Once permission is obtained I'd love to add a few examples of Northern and Southern styles, examples of various famous poles, and pictures drawn by some of the early European explorers. This article has lots of potential for FA status. — Jéioosh 04:28, 25 Mar 2005 (UTC)

I don't really see any problem with taking pictures of poles, in public parks such as Thunderbird Park and posting them up here for identification and education purposes -- even if copyrights were claimed, this usage falls under fair use. heqs 12:11, 27 June 2006 (UTC)
After talking with several elders I believe that you’re right. They all strongly supported the idea of using pictures for educational uses such as in Wikipedia. Their main complaint was with pictures or copies of designs which are used for commercial purposes, something which is not a problem here. — Jéioosh 22:03, 23 July 2006 (UTC)

I understand the Haisla repatriation is a world's first and for that reason I added a graph under "Property." But I'm less sure about the second sentence about the documentary: it seems to me that it may be out of place and better suited as an External Link, below, if at all. Comments please Shawn in Montreal 01:07, 28 October 2006 (UTC)

Not a totem pole[edit]

I've deleted the reference to Ed Galloway's Totem Pole Park because the "totem pole" in question has nothing to do with this article. My reasoning is from the thesis of the article: this pole is not carved from wood, it was not made by a Native American, and was not made according to the cross-cultural rules of Pacific Northwest Coast native art. It has nothing to do with totem poles at all other than being a massive vertical outdoor sculpture, and I don't feel that its peculiar height lends any justification to its listing here. — Jéioosh 03:32, 11 Apr 2005 (UTC)

totem, totemism, totem pole[edit]

I'm having a hard time relating the ideas in these three articles. They seem to be describing three completely different concepts. If they're really unrelated, that should be explained. If they are in fact related, then there's something wrong with the articles. The totemism article says the word comes from an Ojibwe word, but the totem article seems to imply that it's from Chinese. Or is the Chinese word totim actually derived from the English word totem? I think this should be clarified. --Bcrowell 15:51, 19 Jun 2005 (UTC)

For starters, totem poles are unrelated to totemism. Totem poles actually have nothing to do with totemism, since they are not representations of totems per se, but are instead representations of crest symbols which belong to particular cultural groups within a society. They are comparable to heraldry used in European monarchies, and in fact have many things in common with heraldry, in that they represent historical or legendary associations of particular animals or figures with certain cultural lineages (not families in the case of totem poles, but social clans). The name "totem pole" is a historical accident of misunderstanding their purpose. This should be clarified in the article at some point, but I haven't the time to do it at the moment. — Jéioosh 21:19, 19 Jun 2005 (UTC)


I removed several references to pictography in the article. Totem poles are in no way pictographic, they cannot be "read" and do not encode language. Instead they are "iconic", they stand for other sorts of information, extralinguistic knowledge. Pictography is a simple form of writing to represent language, iconography is instead a form of representational art which has in general no linguistic content. — Jéioosh 19:18, 8 March 2006 (UTC)

You've done a good job with this article so far - keep up the good work. It needs someone like you to improve it further. heqs 12:13, 27 June 2006 (UTC)
Don't look now, but there's this article on here called Pictography... it cites a book by Ishmael Reed as saying totem poles are pictographic (there is a para in this article that cites "Reed 2003" as well, btw...) heqs 07:25, 4 July 2006 (UTC)

New images[edit]

I added some new images, I hope it does not make it too cluttered. I think this subject desrves alot of illustration. I photographed these poles in Victoria, BC HighInBC 17:34, 23 July 2006 (UTC)

They look good. Do you have any info on names, which tribe carved them, etc.? That would be helpful for this article. — Jéioosh 21:56, 23 July 2006 (UTC)
Each pole has a story, and a family associated with them, much in the same way as a heraldic crest. I suggest that the story of each pole, if known, be included. I thought maybe also Marius Barbeau's Totem Poles (Nat'l Museum of Canada publ. I think) might be included as a ref/further reading, although his anthropological observations are out-of-date; but the two-volume sets documents the stories associated with each and every pole and house-painting featured....Skookum1 22:01, 23 July 2006 (UTC)
I don't know their history, however I can go back to the image pages and give their precise locations. The one's I did at thunderbird park had information added by another editor. HighInBC 23:20, 23 July 2006 (UTC)

The locations (and origins) should do the trick; although I don't own a copy of Barbeau anymore; but most poles on public display, that is to say, ones before the current-era revival of native carving, should be listed; current-era ones will probably have contemporary write-ups associated with their erection, also. Slowly, slowly, we might be able to track them down and add their stories.Skookum1 23:24, 23 July 2006 (UTC)

With the first few images that HighInBC took at Thunderbird Park, I was able to look each one up on the interpretive tour on the Park's website, and get detailed reference info. Next best thing to being there, I must say. I'll try and turn up the same kind of thing for others as time permits... heqs 21:50, 26 July 2006 (UTC)
heqs, your my hero! I have added precise location via google maps links on each of my totem pole pictures. Hope this helps. HighInBC 00:17, 27 July 2006 (UTC)

Alternate stories?[edit]

Just got back from a trip to Ketchikan, and can provide a photo or two from Saxman Totem Park, e.g. Image:Top_of_Seward_Pole.jpg. That would seem to be consistent with the intent above.

I'm surprised about the inconsistency of the stories. For example, the main article claims that "[o]ne famous shame pole is the Lincoln Pole in Saxman, Alaska; it was apparently created to shame the U.S. government into repaying the Tlingit people for the value of slaves which were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation. Other explanations for it have arisen as the original reason was forgotten or suppressed, however this meaning is still clearly recounted by a number of Tlingit elders today." Huh? I suppose this is possible, but it seems awfully unlikely -- the reach of the Emancipation Proclamation on the Tlingit would be slight.

Our guide impressed me -- although silly me, didn't write down his name. Local boy, entrepreneur (had started a line of cards, "Alaskan Go Fish", so that kids could play 'go fish' but the cards would show off local wildlife), and I suspect will be a mayor or the like at some point. He provided a story similar to that in , although with a bit more detail. His story was that the Tlingit and the saw a warship cruising down Tongass narrows, and went out to talk to the captain because they had lost a bunch of their kids to the Haida in a clan war, and since this was post-civil war, the warship had to do something about it. So the captain of the warship formed a shore party, sent the shore party toward the Haida camp on foot, and then took the ship into the camp. With the ship he blew apart every structure, and with the shore party he killed most everything that moved -- then took the chieftains of both the Tlingit and the Haida onboard ship. He explained that every time he came by, he would have to deal with the situation, and the only tool he had was to destroy everything in site, so the chieftains had better resolve the issue. Apparently, the peace remained to this day. The pole was created to celebrate the event, but you can't put a warship on a totem pole. However, the ship had a large portrait of Lincoln, but only to his knees, which is why the icon at the top of the totem is shortened.

He also had a story about a shame pole that really does make sense, the Seward pole. The story there can be more readily found, googling for Seward Pole. (Sarah Vowell's _Assassination_Vacation_ actually has several stories about the Lincoln pole as well as the Seward Pole.) Frankly, it would be much better to go with that one, to describe shame poles.


  • The beginnings of totem pole construction are not known though recent DNA evidence suggests Tlingit literature may date from thirty thousand years ago when the Bering Strait was still the Bering land bridge (Reed 2003, p.XX)
    • Garfield, Viola E. and Forrest, Linn A. (1961). The Wolf and the Raven: Totem poles of Southeastern Alaska. Revised edition. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-73998-3. Cited in Reed, Ishmael, ed (2003). From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002. ISBN 1560254580.

Why? Hyacinth 00:32, 18 August 2006 (UTC)

Moved here from article[edit]

what are the totyem poles for? & what do the symbols mean? -- (talk)


I have just been looking at this page with one of my children, and we have found it a very good article. However the first sentence makes reference to totem poles starting in Africa, but makes no further reference to Africa, and moves, I think, to North America without a transition.

I do not have the knowledge to offer what should be written, but I think it might be helpful if this first part were edited to make it clearer. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Amandawoodfield (talkcontribs) 09:22, 16 September 2007 (UTC)

What you saw was a recent change that I identified as vandalism. I have reverted it. Thanks for pointing it out. Dkreisst 22:25, 16 September 2007 (UTC)

Naming Controversy[edit]

An art history professor I took a class from was adamant that there was a great deal of controversy over the name "totem pole", and that the politically correct name is "crest pole". Does anyone have other sources on this? I'm not advocating a name change (totem pole is by far the more commonly used term), just perhaps a section on the name controversy. (talk) 04:57, 27 January 2008 (UTC)

I've never heard of this before, but I'll look around. OldManRivers (talk) 21:47, 27 January 2008 (UTC)

I work at the Royal Ontario Museum and we have been asked by our curators never to call them totem poles. Crest poles - yes, spirit poles - maybe. I was surprised this wasn't even mentioned on the page. Maybe it's just a Canadian thing. Americans still use 'Indians' and 'Eskimos', both of which are really outdated in Canada. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Donalldubh (talkcontribs) 02:11, 30 November 2009 (UTC)

the native groups, festivals, etc. here in seattle generally use the term "spirit pole". i don't know if totem pole is "offensive" per se, but there's definitely a sense that that is the "caucasian" term.
i am not sure i have seen "crest pole" anywhere. (talk) 23:47, 26 July 2011 (UTC)

Totem gives the idea to some people who are familiar with the term "Totem" a wrong perception, or view of our culture. This wrongful guess, comes from the Christians who traveled the world, and when they came across South America, by the Inca's, Aztec's, and Myan's, where these nations used the term "totem pole" in it's proper use, worship as deities'. First Nations, from the West Coast of BC, we do not have a religion, and we do not worship our poles! They have a few names, depending on the use of them vary; House Poles (placed in front of house, and gives you the genealogy of the families living within this house), Honor Poles (worth a recognition for an individual(s)), Mortuary Poles (death of a chief or high ranking elder), Warning Poles (animals, a change of season, or a hostile environment), or the most common, the Story Pole (Stories passed on from generation to generation through a story pole). Jungle_Vulture from BC

Question about maintenance[edit]

I assume that most totem poles in the Pacific Northwest are made of the douglas fir tree. But then again, I suppose any kind of tree will do. In any case, the main article indicates that many totem poles are left to rot with time (as rotting is a natural process), or left to the elements when a tribe abandons an area, and so are not restored or maintained.

Actually as far as I know, most poles are red cedar. But in modern times I've seen and heard of them being in what ever kind of food. Along with the rotting process, there are poles that are refurbished and restored. Actually, the totem pole village tourist attraction in Stanley Park in Vancouver, basically their just plastic now. They've been coded so much it will take forever for them to rot because they have what seems like a plastic bubble. It's a philosophical thing of the carver/artists and the community. Some keep the old ways and let it rot, others see differently. OldManRivers (talk) 16:44, 22 February 2008 (UTC)

Also, are there any instances of two or three totem poles being bound together (as with rope), or cut and fit together, so that a larger face is more properly available for carving on? (talk) 07:06, 22 February 2008 (UTC)

I've never heard of them being bound together. I know people glue wood together now, to carve larger structures and such because of the scacity of large cedar wood to work with. OldManRivers (talk) 16:44, 22 February 2008 (UTC)

Yale courselink[edit]

This removed link I thought worth re-posting here for further consideration; it contains a number of apocrypha and speculation and should not be considered authoritative in anyway a a reliable source; it does contain interesting bibliographical items, but is written not for informational purposes but to define curriculum content.Skookum1 (talk) 15:32, 24 October 2008 (UTC)

Asherah pole?[edit]

Would an Asherah pole be considered a type of totem pole? Perhaps a See also section could be added with a link to that? Or maybe even under the "Totem poles outside North America" section? OlEnglish (talk) 00:15, 22 December 2008 (UTC)

All such comparisons are OR and shoudl be deleted; the one exception is the Ainu reference, as there is in fact some cultural connection and they are also clan symbols (not religious icons). If all carved pillars were to be included, nearly all world cultures at some point would be included; only those which have been compared in reliable sources to totem poles shoudl be here; the Korean reference should be struck out, in the same way a tiki would not belong or a stela from Toltec or Maya culture. NB there is also a difference between "totem pole" and "totemic pole" or anything else "totemic". Totem poles are more like coats of arms than they are any kind of religious object of worship; their nature is more heraldic and to do with status/rank and family legacy/history than with any of the purposes of the other poles; there is also an observed anthropological link with the Ainu and the Ainu poles are often compared to Northwest Coast poles; the same is not true of the Korean objects and the Asherah pole.Skookum1 (talk) 22:21, 30 March 2009 (UTC)

Scrotum Pole redirect[edit]

Is there a type of totem pole called a "Scrotum pole"? That phrase redirects here, but there is no mention of scrotum poles in this article.

Not as far as I know. The creator of the redirect also created the dognut redirect. Dkreisst (talk) 21:31, 30 March 2009 (UTC)
I prodded it, it will be gone shortly.Skookum1 (talk) 22:16, 30 March 2009 (UTC)

Christian Totem Poles[edit]

This line: "Christian missionaries reviled the totem pole as an object of heathen worship and urged converts to cease production and destroy existing poles," is factually incorrect to imply that all three of the main Christian branches did this. It was WASP Protestant Christians who tried to remake the Native American in their own (Western European) image. But before this the Russian Orthodox Christians in Alaska, as is the way of the Orthodox, allowed the natives to keep their traditions, simply replacing pagan symbols of the poles with Christian ones. Hence, Christian Totem Poles. I think this line should be changed to reflect this difference in the two Missionary styles. It would further deepen the encyclopedia entry to make an addition of photograph of an Orthodox Christian Totem Pole. --Nikoz78 (talk) 06:59, 9 September 2010 (UTC)

If the Orthodox missionaries thought that totem poles were just find the way they were, why did they find it necessary to encourage Christian symbols to be placed on them? This is just as sure of a method of erasure, though not as swift, as the requirement to "cease production and destroy existing poles."
Certainly, though, the sentence could be improved to show the differences and similarities between the different branches of Christian missionaries.Dkreisst (talk) 19:59, 12 September 2010 (UTC)
I added a reference to the missionary affect on totem poles; if anyone can add more specifics - like which sect or denomination of missionaries affected the totem pole then add them with references...Modernist (talk) 22:09, 12 September 2010 (UTC)

Orthodox do not try to remake native peoples in their own image. The Orthodox Eskimos to this day have their Christian Poles. They sought to convert them to Christianity, not try to make them "European." That is a straight fact. Easter was a German goddess and celebration. They allowed this tradition to remain simply replacing the goddess Easter with Christ. This year in Ethiopia I witnessed African tribal dances in praise of Christ; these were once pagan but the Greek Orthodox again, as is the way of the Orthodox, allowed them to retain their folk heritage. Examples of this go all the way back to the Greeks, who were the first non-Jewish peoples Christianized, who retained their Hellenic traditions to a very large degree. In fact, Christianity as we know it grew up in a Greek world. Also, the Orthodox are not a "denomination." Like the Catholics they are pre-denominational. Denominations did not exist until renegade-Catholics formed the Protestant Church (which is now fractured into 33,000 different denominations). --Nikoz78 (talk) 15:36, 13 September 2010 (UTC)

Help request: 2 images are turned sideways[edit]

Two of the images are turned sideways. I don't know how to modify the image pages and don't have the wherewithal to look it up. Just thought I'd point it out.

Thanks! --Geekdiva (talk) 07:42, 11 December 2011 (UTC)

Thanks, the 2 images have now been rotated at commons. Melburnian (talk) 02:49, 22 December 2011 (UTC)

Misnamed totem picture[edit]

The totem named the Three Frog shame totem is misnamed. I don't know what it is, but this is a link to the actual three frog totem--

I don't know how to change it in the article or I would do so. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 15:08, 4 October 2012 (UTC)

Do you have a source for the correct name? Dkreisst (talk) 20:27, 4 October 2012 (UTC)

"world's tallest"[edit]

A link with this article's title was on Alert Bay, British Columbia and I know there's several other places that make this claim about their poles. Strikes me there should be a List of tallest totem poles or some such list where they can be listed and compared; each in succession no doubt was the tallest of its time, or in its original location sometimes, but clearly "there can be only one".Skookum1 (talk) 08:03, 2 May 2013 (UTC)

Wisdom hats[edit]

the Raven pole, centre with wisdom hat.


Years ago, I saw a totem pole in Toronto (College Park lower shopping level near Bay street) made by a west coast artist that had in its description reference to the wisdom hat. The top of the totem had the figure of an elder (deceased IIRC) and this figure was wearing a hat made of several rings stacked above each other. The description indicated that the number of rings indicated the wisdom of the elder. You can see such a hat in the photo:

I've seen such hats on other poles, including one in the British Museum in 2009.

What I have never seen is a description of wisdom hats in place other than the Toronto art work. Does anyone have a source for such a thing - I think it would be good to add to the article if it is legit. (talk) 01:15, 30 October 2013 (UTC)

Kayung Totem Pole[edit]

This is arguably one of the most recognizable of all totem poles, being featured on a well-known $1 Canadian Stamp, as well as being prominently displayed in the British Museum. Does anyone oppose the British Museum being referenced in the "Totem Poles of Note" section in the notable collections list? I believe the examples in the British Museum deserve reference in this article. IcehouseCover (talk) 23:11, 27 May 2015 (UTC)

External links modified[edit]

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First sentence is ambiguous[edit]

The article begins by stating that "[t]otem poles are monumental sculptures carved on poles, posts, or pillars with symbols or figures made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America (northwestern United States and Canada's western province, British Columbia)". I don't understand how a symbol or figure can possibly be "made from large trees". Imerologul Valah (talk) 08:57, 17 September 2015 (UTC)

Ceremonial pole[edit]

Now we have a new article Ceremonial pole, Please see and include suitable improvements , if any, in article Ceremonial pole].

Rgds Mahitgar (talk) 11:07, 25 October 2015 (UTC)

Looking for WP:RS[edit]

  • Mangrohan (Devnagari:मंगरोहन) is a Totem pole raised on marraige occasion in Chhattisgarh, India.[1]
While above ref prima facia seems reliable, but en wiki has additional conditions as WP:RS and translation also would be needed from Hindi to English. So if some one works on this then worth addition to the article.

Mahitgar (talk) 11:15, 25 October 2015 (UTC)

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