Iconic Facts About the Iconic Totem Pole

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Totem poles, along with wigwams, tipis, tomahawks, war paint and feathered headgear are iconic symbols of an all but lost culture. The towering totem poles that can still be seen in parks along the North Western coast of North America stand as a lasting memorial to the cultural heritage of the Native Americans.

FACT 1: Totem poles are the heritage of the Native Americans that lived along the North Western coast of America. The poles were carved on cedar poles. In the moist atmosphere of the coasts, the cedar wood rots. Poles last about sixty years. Native craftsmen have been employed to preserve the poles that still stand.

FACT 2: Contrary to popular belief, totem poles were not worshipped by the Native Americans. They had no religious significance. Seven types of totem poles were carved by the Native Americans. The poles were memorial, heraldic, grave markers, house posts, portal posts, welcome posts, and mortuary posts and even ridicule posts. There is no record of religious poles.

FACT 3: Before the coming of the European traders, the Native Americans did not consider the visual arts a profession. Interested individuals created the poles or other works of art in the course of their daily lives. The Native Americans did however appreciate the artist’s ability to arouse an emotional response.

FACT 4: The European traders brought great wealth to some Native Americans. The fur trade and fishing flourished. The individuals, who became wealthy, hired artists on a commission basis to create totem poles for them.

FACT 5: A totem is a guardian or ancestral being that is revered but not worshipped. Native Americans often experienced visual quests, where the soul left the body and participated in strange activities and saw unusual sights. These often were depicted on the poles.

FACT 6: All totem poles had a real or imaginary animal carved on them. It served as a family crest and identified the lineage of the head of the family. Totem poles may also relate a family legend in the form of pictographs. These pictographs are not easy to interpret without the help of a family member, who understands the symbols.

FACT 7: The United States purchased the State of Alaska from Russia, in 1867. The State was very sparsely populated and Governor Brady was charged with creating an interest in the state. He conceived the idea of a totem pole park. Between 1903 and 1904, he toured the villages of Tlingit and Haida, and was gifted 15 poles. The poles were on display at a spring exhibition held in 1904. The exhibits fulfilled their purpose and attracted huge crowds. In 1906 the poles were moved to the Sitka National Historical Park, where their positioning was orchestrated by photographer E.W.Merril. They stand there today as a tribute to the original inhabitants of the continent.

FACT 8: As totem poles are made of wood, they have a limited life span. The city of Westminster commissioned totem pole designer, Charles Muggli to design and create three totem poles for Kensington Park. The poles were installed in 2007. They are carved with different symbols of California. These include an eagle with outspread wings, a Columbine flower, frogs, thunder birds coyotes and beavers.

FACT 9: In Fairfield Bay, Arkansas the Woodcarvers Unlimited Group has etched the history of the country, the area and the Native Americans on totem poles. The pole is carved on native red cedar. Two of the poles are 20ft tall and the third towers to 30 ft. The natural history of the area from the ancient mammoth to the contemporary bald eagle is also depicted on the poles.

FACT 10: Animal images are an essential element of totem poles. Poles may have only one animal image etched on it, as in a grave marker, or several as in a family legend. The animals follow a standardised from, familiar to all Native Americans of the North West Coast. A beaver always has a cross hatched tail and an eagle always has a downward curving beak.

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