I knew I was going to see many totem poles on our Canada/Alaska trip, and, when I saw the Haida totem pole in the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford, I set out to find out more. First, to the ‘fount of all knowledge’, Wikipedia … which told me they were ‘never used as objects for worship’, but failed to explain concisely what they WERE for.
Further research suggested they actually served several purposes; they could show, by means of their intricate carvings, the geneaology, the achievements or status of the owner. They could be memorials to someone who had passed away; there was sometimes a cavity into which the departed’s ashes could be placed. Or, they might be a sort of co-operative effort, to show the achievements of a particular group, or a significant happening in the neighbourhood. They could serve, it might be said, as a village sign, a house number, a tombstone, a war memorial, a commemorative statue … or a garden gnome!
It would seem that they started as the carved posts around which houses would be built, but it was only after Europeans arrived, and introduced metal tools, that the practice of chopping down tall trees, usually red cedar, and making the intricate carvings began. The only rule is that none of the carvings must be of inanimate objects.
It is thought that the Haida people, of western Canada began the practice, and it spread right along the Pacific coast. And, maybe even further; the Maori people of New Zealand carved similar posts, and maybe Australian aborigines made them also. There even a theory that post-holes found around England’s Stonehenge may once have held something akin to a totem pole back in the Stone Age.
We saw our first totem poles at Carcross, in the Yukon Terrirory; more at Skagway. And, in the Saxman Native Village, Ketchikan and at Stanley Park, Vancouver they’ve assembled collections of them, And, here are just some of them …