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Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast

The totem pole is probably the most widely recognized form of traditional Northwest Coast art. No one knows who carved the first pole or when it was carved, but sailors who took part in early Europeans explorations of the Northwest Coast over 200 years ago reported seeing totem poles at the villages they visited. As trade between Europeans and Native people was established, iron tools for carving became available and Native wealth increased. This combination fueled a tremendous growth in the kinds and numbers of totem poles that were carved in the 19th century.

The relationship between animals and humans is an important part of the mythology of the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast. They believed in transformation, or the idea that humans could transform into animals and vice versa. As a result, the people organized themselves into clans based on their relationship with a particular animal, and animal figures have always played an important role in the Native art.

Animals and other figures are carved on totem poles to record the family or clan’s history, myths, and traditions for others to admire and enjoy. The stories often celebrate the daring and courage of an ancestor who was able to enter another world and bring home rewards still enjoyed by his or her descendants.

Traditionally, a family of one clan commissions a carver from another clan to make a pole. The owner usually tells the carver which animals to use and then leaves the design of the pole up to the artisan. The creation of a totem requires the selection of a raw cedar log and then months of carving. When the pole is completed, it may be as tall as 60 feet. The pole is raised in a traditional ceremony, and the people who attend hear the story of the pole and are expected to remember both the occasion and the narrative whenever they see the pole. Although the art form of the totem pole was in decline for many years and almost lost, today it is again alive and thriving.




Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

In what ways does the artwork tell us about the time and place in which it was made?

• Does the subject matter of the work suggest something about its origins?

• Do the materials or techniques suggest something about the place in which the artwork was made?

• Is the artwork similar to artworks made by others who lived in this place?

• What meaning or importance did the artwork have to the people who saw or used it when it was made? Did the people think artists were special people?

• What evidence do you have to help you think about what the artwork meant to the people of the time?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.