Totem Poles


Totem poles are monuments of religious, spiritual and social significance. They are typically built by the Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest areas of United States. The totem poles are used to show off affluence, prestige and social standing of a family or individual.

Although traditional totem poles in the 18th century were very simple, the style has significantly evolved since.

Totem poles are monuments of religious, spiritual and social significance

The Evolution of the Totem Poles

The Pacific Northwest is rich in forested lands. The availability of timber allowed the local Native American tribes to construct elaborate totem poles. The poles were carved from timber, with shapes featuring various symbols of religious and social significance.

Back in the 17th and 18th century, the poles were very simple and not very frequent.

As Native Americans came into contact with the Europeans, they adopted iron tools. These allowed them to more rapidly construct and more elaborately decorate totem poles.

Towards the late 19th century, the practice of constructing totem poles was discouraged by the American government and Christian missionaries. However, a revival in the 20th century saw a resurgence in the popularity of totem poles.

Totem poles carry a diverse range of meanings in the Native American culture

Totem Poles Meaning and Symbolism

Totem poles carry a diverse range of meanings in the Native American culture. For some Indians, totem poles symbolize the events of the family or ancestors. Some poles are made to commemorate the shared legacy or history of a tribe.

Totem poles may also be constructed as a tribute to the gods or an artistic rendition of the Native Indian mythology. Popular motifs used on totem pole carvings include animals, fish, insects and humans. The more outward meaning of a pole can be in terms of the prestige, social elevation or authority of the owner.

This is a Native American Totem pole called a ‘Grunge Pole’ made out of wood.

Types of Poles

Depending on their style and other features, totem poles can be broadly categorized into six types.

These include house interior poles, mortuary poles, house frontal poles, shame poles, welcome poles and memorial poles.

  • Shame poles are constructed to ridicule or shame someone for committing a wrong.
  • Welcome poles serve the purpose of welcome visitors or guests.
  • Memorial poles commemorate a deceased person or an event of significance.
  • Interior house poles serve as supports for the roof and also as a sort of family tapestry.
  • Mortuary poles commemorate the death of an important person.
  • The dead person’s ashes are stored in this type of pole.
  • A house frontal pole is the most elaborate type, featuring themes related to the house owner, clan or tribe.


Most totem poles are between 3 meters and 20 meters in height. Only a few are taller. To construct a totem pole, a tall tree is selected for the purpose and cut down.

The bark is removed and the rear half of the tree is chopped off. Tools are then used by specialized artists to carve the relevant figures and motifs on the front.

The pole is then erected in a special pole raising ceremony, which is followed by a community meal or potlatch.

Depending on their maintenance, most totem poles last around 60 to 80 years.