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14 totally terrific totem pole facts

 

A thunderbird carved into the top of a totem pole located in Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C. (Photo by Bernard Spragg licensed CC0 1.0)

Have you ever seen a totem pole? They are those tall and sometimes colourful carvings that make us think of the Aboriginal and Indigenous peoples of North America. Since June 21st is National Aboriginal Day, let's check out cool facts about totem poles!

1. Do you know what a coat of arms is? It's a unique design that's used to symbolize a family or group or even a nation (like Canada's coat of arms below). Totem poles are kind of like a coat of arms — they represent Aboriginal families and clans!

Canada's Coat of Arms

Canada's coat of arms, also known as the Arms of Canada. (© 1994, Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada)

2. Some totem poles are a recording of important events that happened in the past. They tell the stories of those families and clans they represent, which could be myths or legends, or something that happened to a person the totem pole is honouring.

3. But there are different kinds of totem poles that have other meanings. Some are used to welcome or scare off strangers, some celebrate a special occasion like a wedding, some are memorials to remember an important member of the tribe and some are made to shame a person or another tribe who has done something wrong.

The Seward pole, an example of a pole used to shame someone

The Seward Pole, located in Saxman Totem Park in Alaska, is a famous example of a totem pole made to shame someone. (Photo by Charley_K licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

4. The word totem comes from the Algonquian word odoodem meaning “his kinship group” (which means a family or a clan).

5. Black, red, white and blue-green were the main colours of paint used on totem poles.

6. Some totem poles are as high as 18 metres! That’s taller than a street light which averages between 7.5 and 9 metres.

A graphic comparing the heights of an 18 metre totem pole and a 9 metre street light

7. Totem poles are typically made from old red or yellow cedar trees because cedar doesn’t rot like other woods do so it can survive for many years!

8. The original totem poles were created by only six tribes of the western part of North America: Haida (say "hydah"), the Nuxalt (say "nu-halk"), the Kwakwaka'wakw (say "kwak-wak-ya-wak"), the Tlingit (say "kling-kit"), the Tsimshian (say "sim-she-an") and the Coast Salish (say "say-lish") people.

9. The animals you'll see most often on a totem pole are the eagle, raven, thunderbird, bear, beaver, wolf, killer whale and frog.

Examples of what a killer whale, frog and beaver look like in totem poles

A killer whale, frog and beaver. (Photo by Alastair Smith licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Photo by Clint Lalonde licensed CC BY-NC 2.0; Photo by Dave King licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

10. Totem poles were originally carved by hand using sharpened stones, sea shells, bones or even beaver teeth!

11. The different tribes have different carving styles: Haida totems have big eyes and deep carvings, Kwakwaka'wakw carvings are also deep but the eyes are more narrow, Tsimshian and Nuxalt totems are known to have carvings of more supernatural and non-human beings while Coast Salish totems featured more human-looking carvings.

12. Today, totem poles are raised for crowds of hundreds of people in places of honour and First Nations villages.

13. Depending on the size and the carver’s experience, a totem pole could take anywhere between three to nine months to create.

14. If you really want a totem pole, you can still have an artist carve you one, but it will range in price between $25,000 and $60,000 each — better start saving your allowance money!