IntroductionSome towering nearly forty feet high (12 meters) Native American Indian totem poles, carved from the trunks of massive trees, are a stunning example of Native American Indian art. On this page is a list interesting facts about totem poles including where the Indian tribes that made them were, why they sculpted totem poles, how they made them, and what materials they used. Both kids and adults will find the easy-to-read format of this information helpful.
Click here for a great selection of books about Native American Totem Poles on AMAZON.
Native American Indian Totem Poles General Facts
- Native American Indian totem poles are sculptures carved on poles made from huge trees. These sculptures were made by Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. Why only tribes from this region? This art form was limited to regions where trees were very large and plentiful.
- The name of this art form "totem pole" is derived from the Algonquian word odoodem meaning "his kinship group".
- The figures carved on totem poles often depict characters from tribal legends. Animals are often carved on the poles.
- The carvings on totem poles often have symbolic meaning which can be complex.
- The first European explorers to the Pacific Northwest of North America observed totem poles and it is likely this art form has a long history dating back hundreds of years.
- An authentic American Indian totem pole can easily cost over $8,000 U.S. dollars. There are authentic ones for sale in some Native American Indian shops and are also available for sale online.
- Making a totem pole is an extremely labor intensive process. The huge poles were entirely carved by hand. The paint was then handmade and applied.
- Totem poles did not serve a religious purpose to Native Americans, as many objects did. Instead, they were meant to commemorate special occasions such as marriages, births and anniversaries. They sometimes portrayed a shameful act or a death.
- Considering the extensive amount of work that went into making a totem pole, they were regarded as a sign of wealth and power. They were often found outside the home of tribal chiefs.
Facts about How Native American Indian Totem Poles Were Made
- Traditional Indian totem poles were carved by hand.
- Items used to carve out totem poles included shells, wood, bone, stone, antlers, and beaver teeth. When European traders and settlers began populating North America iron tools became available which were excellent for use in making totem poles.
- The four main paint colors used in a totem pole were black, red, turquoise and white. Salmon eggs that had been chewed up and spit out were used to create the base of the paint.
- The time it took to create a totem pole depended on its intricacy and its size. An experienced carver could expect to spend anywhere from 3 to 9 months constructing one.
Types of Native American Indian Totem PolesThe different types of totem poles can generally be put into one of six categories.
- Story-telling poles - Without written language, Native Americans used symbols engraved into totem poles to preserve stories and legends that were passed down orally from one generation to the next.
- Memorial poles - Served to highlight the life of an important tribal member.
- House poles and family lineage poles - Told of a tribal clans ancestry and lineage. House poles also helped to support the actual structure of the house.
- Shame poles - made to serve as a reminder to both groups and individuals that exhibited objectionable behavior. Poor leadership, tribal quarrels, unpaid debts, murders and any unfulfilled obligations were all reasons to erect a shame pole.
- Commemorative poles - These totem poles were usually the largest and were created in celebration of a specific occasion.
- Mortuary poles and grave marker poles - Some totem poles were hollowed out in the back to serve as a holder for a deceased tribal member's ashes while some were used as grave markers in later years.