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
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.
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
• 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