Totem Poles Of The Pacific Northwest


By Victoria Chick, contemporary figurative artist and early 19th & 20th century print collector

Victoria Chick, a contemporary figurative artist and early 19th/20th century print collector, discusses the history and art of Totem Poles in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and British Columbia, on Big Blend Radio.

The owner of an art gallery in California told me an Indian lady had been in to see my paintings and stated the cat must be my totem. When I gave it some thought, I had to admit she was right about how they represented me. But, totems are usually defined as representing groups of people. Examples are found from Asia to Polynesia, with a strong tradition in the Northwest corner of the United States including Alaska, as well as the coastal area of British Columbia in Canada.

Northwest Pacific Coast Indians are formed of numerous distinct tribes and developed separate nations with their own traditions and social customs. Clans that exist within tribes identify with an animal recognized as a non-human ancestor. The art that expresses clan identity most powerfully is the totem pole. Totem poles have also been used to tell moral stories and recall historic events.

These carved sculptures can be free standing, or be attached to the front of houses, and even used as indoor posts. They are made of long-lasting red cedar and may be painted or left to weather in the elements. The largest can be 50-70 feet high. From early times, the rich natural resources of the geographical area along the coast of British Columbia, Washington State, and Oregon and Alaska, provided abundant food. The abundance of food left time for people to develop aesthetic skills. The area also has animals with distinct behavior characteristics that were seen as positive or negative by various tribes. Native animal images became symbols, or totems, that represented things such as the source of clan wealth, how a clan identified with the attributes of certain animals, animistic spiritual representations or sometimes social comment. Often seen on totem poles are eagles, ravens, beaver, bear, wolves, frogs, and fish, with occasional human figures.

Totem poles are impossible to interpret without understanding the beliefs and history of the clan unit. Older scholars believed the stacking of figures one atop the other indicated a hierarchy of importance. Modern scholarship tends to discount this idea. Westerners’ past interpretation of the hierarchical theory gave rise to the expression, “Low man on the totem pole”, to describe someone without much status. It may be more rewarding for those who are not members of totem making tribes to simply appreciate the design, carving, color, scale, and community spirit that are intrinsic to the significance of each totem pole.

From the Westerners’ standpoint, two of the most interesting totem poles are those depicting interaction between tribes/clans and the U.S. government – with Abraham Lincoln used on one and Secretary of the Interior, William Seward, on another. In Seward’s case, the totem was a separate genre of totem called a shame pole. These were erected to dishonor a person or another clan that had dealt underhandedly or whose word was not good. Seward had visited and promised many gifts which never materialized. The totem, which had originally been a memorial of honor, was changed into a shame pole by adding red paint to the nose, ears and lips of the effigy of Seward, indicating he did not speak the truth. Sometimes a shame pole has the offending person or a group’s totem shown upside down.

A potlatch is held when totem poles are erected. These are usually clan gatherings, but, if the totem pole commemorates some interaction with another clan, everyone takes part. In the late 1800’s, missionaries misunderstood the totem pole and thought it was being worshipped. Potlatches and the erecting of totem poles were outlawed in both Canada and the United States. This was when Native American artists began making small, model totem poles and began selling them to tourists. It was not until 1951 that the anti-potlatch law was rescinded, and tribes began raising new poles to celebrate their families, communities, and lands. Since that time, some tribes other than Northwest Pacific coast Indians have adopted the practice of making totem poles and even non-Indian groups have made totem poles as well. I think this is because the sheer size and impressive images on totem poles capture the imagination of nearly everyone

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at

Cow Trail Art Studio - Silver City, NM


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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio.

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