Native American Totem Poles

Native American totem poles were made by tribes that lived in the Pacific Northwest. It's believed that they originated in Alaska, and the custom traveled down the Pacific coast through what is now British Columbia and Washington State. These amazing works of art were traditionally carved from red cedar trees and could reach an astounding forty feet tall. The wood was treated using techniques that varied among different tribes.

A single individual would carve a totem pole. This person was honored and given gifts at a ceremony called a potlatch in which the totem pole was raised. Raising the tall structures was a complicated undertaking, requiring scaffolding, ropes, and hundreds of men. The ceremonies also included a lot of dancing and celebration. Because they were allowed to decay naturally as part of the natural process of life, there are few totem poles left from the 19th century and earlier. Artists are still carving these works of art to keep the traditions alive.

Totem poles were symbolic, with carvings usually representing stories of ancestors, families, and historical events. They were a show of respect for the past. The stories could also be used to impart lessons. Contrary to popular belief, Native American totem poles weren't seen as religious objects or used for religious ceremonies. They often contained symbols that had spiritual meaning, though. One example is the eagle. This bird was believed to be able to communicate with the Great Spirit. Other common symbols were ravens, which were seen as "tricksters" that represented knowledge and creation, and bears, which showed strength, protective mothering, and humility.

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