Sept. 30, 2002
Since they were first noticed by European explorers in the 1700s, totem poles may have been misunderstood. Britain's Captain James Cook, who encountered totem poles off the coast of British Columbia, called them "truly monstrous figures." Early missionaries thought the poles were worshipped as gods and encouraged them to be burned. And even today, when someone refers to the "low man on the totem pole," they may not realize that the bottom figure was often the most important one -- and usually, it wasn't a man.
For Morning Edition
's ongoing series, Present at the Creation
, NPR's Robert Smith
reports on how such misunderstandings almost destroyed the art of totem poles before they could become American cultural icons.
Not much is known about the first totem poles, says Smith: "Only that the original carvers belonged to just a few tribes that lived ... on the Inside Passage, a protected waterway that runs from Seattle to Juneau. The Haida people tell stories of fully carved totem poles washing up on beaches or being spotted under the water; but there is no story of the original pole."
Bill McLennen, a curator at the Museum of Anthology at the University of British Columbia, says historians may not know where totem poles come from, but it's clear what they were for. Early totem poles were like billboards for rich and powerful native families, telling stories about the family and the rights and privileges it enjoyed. With early traders came more wealth, and more poles, Smith says: "Some accounts talk about 19th-century native villages with hundreds of totem poles, each one shouting out the power and wealth of the family behind it."
The flourishing of totem poles didnít last. The Canadian government banned the Potlatch, the huge party that accompanied the raising of totem poles. Increasingly, native children were shipped off to residential schools, and the skills of carving did not get passed on.
But even as the art was dying on the Northwest coast, totem poles were getting famous. Poles bought or stolen from native villages were showing up in museums around the world. Movies and TV shows used totem poles as generic symbols of Native American culture, when the script called for something mysterious or primitive.
Then in the 1960s and '70s, Smith says, a coalition of native and non-native scholars set about rebuilding the art and reestablishing the significance of totem poles. Old poles were taken back from museums and restored. New poles were carved for parks and museums and collectors.
In the native village of Saxman, near Ketchikan, Alaska, tourists flock to view a stand of totem poles, some 30 and 40 feet tall. In a shed nearby, Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson deftly wields an adze of Swiss steel, so sharp he could shave with it. With each swing of his arm, a perfect little cedar shaving the size of a fingernail flies off. Jackson is working on a totem pole that will be erected in Anchorage -- and he's putting exquisite detail into a human figure that will sit 30 feet up, though he knows that "no one will be able to appreciate that except for the birds."
Despite the precision tools and the jazz on the radio in Jackson's workshop, much of the technique of carving totem poles hasn't changed in hundreds of years. Jackson has studied the older poles -- their detail and symmetry -- and learned from the early carvers. "It's too bad we didn't get to see or talk to any of these guys," he says, "because they were pretty good themselves. It'd be dandy to get a critique here or there."
View virtual reality photo panoramas of totem poles in Alaska and Canada
See totem poles at Sitka National Historic Park
just south of Juneau, Alaska.
See a step-by-step photo essay on the creation of a totem pole
, from preparation of the log through carving, painting and raising the pole.
View a photo gallery of Alaska totem poles
Read a Smithsonian Magazine article
, "On the Totem Trail."
Learn about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
, under which museums and federal agencies have returned tens of thousands of totem poles and other artifacts to Native American tribes from whom they were taken.
View pictures of totem poles at Simon Fraser University
's Web site.