In the veiled antiquity of Pacific legend, there lived the trickster Raven, a cunning bird-man who shaped mountains, brought light to the world, and gave the peoples their first totem.
That’s how the stories go at least, though the mortal minds who first erected the carved cedars are lost to time’s gauzy memory.
Some say it was Grey Eagle of the Haidas, to honor his kidnapped daughter, who bade the totem rise as a new way to proclaim his grief. Others divine it was Speckled Merganser, a Tsimshian chief who wished to humble his prideful nephew.
However it came to be, the towering poles soon spread down the coastal forests, their watchful creatures greeting creeksides from Alaska to Columbia, telling tales of lineage, lore and legend for all to behold.
Somewhere in those misty forests of the Pacific Northwest Coast, towering cedar trunks were transformed into monumental works of art. Totem poles, as they came to be known, were the iconic symbols of the indigenous peoples there for centuries untold.
In those long-ago days when great cedars were shop and adze, bone and bivalve, the totem tradition took timbered root, now far too old and deep to trace.
By what bold hand the first pole was shaped, through what aged heart the idea was born, neither history nor carver recalls. But from those earliest awakenings sprung the soaring totems that still conjure an ancient world, full of history and myth, today.
The Purpose That Rose as High as the Trees
The native tribes believed animals, plants and beings of lore were their ancestors and guides. Images of these crest figures graced poles, homes, boats and more, representing the essence of a clan.
Creatures like bears, whales, eagles and ravens told symbolic stories passed down through generations. A pole displayed a family’s lineage, validating their heritage and privileges for all to see.
“It was a lot more than a carving,” said Joe Paul, a Tlingit carver. “It was who we were.”
Sons of the Forests: The Carvers Who Shaped the Poles
Carving was a hallowed discipline, taught to young apprentices who dedicated years honing their skills. Using sharpened stones, shells and bone, they shaped the red and yellow cedar trunks into totems up to 60 feet tall.
Their techniques and styles reflected each tribe’s distinct culture. The Tlingit poles featured strong lines and large, expressive eyes.
The Kwakwaka’wakw used deep carvings and low-relief designs. The tall, imposing poles took months or years to complete, demanding rigorous labor and great expense – testaments to the family’s prestige.
Figures from Crests and Lore: The Symbols That Rose Skyward
The creatures on each pole represented legends familiar to the tribe. Images like bears, ravens, killer whales and thunderbirds depicted their crests, myths and history.
Eagles with glorius, outstretched wings sat atop many poles, carrying prayers to the heavens. The bold colors of red, black, blue and green came from natural pigments, making the stories practically leap off the wood.
Though styles varied between tribes, as culture does, the symbols reminded members of customs, narratives and ancestors they all shared.
The Totem’s Slow Reveal: Crafted in Secret, Shared With Joy
When word spread that Old Raven had marked a cedar for felling out there in the valley of mists, a hush of anticipation rippled through the village. All knew what hand-picked tree meant – a totem would soon rise!
As his apprentices dragged the giant trunk to the cawing of his carved kindred, the people watched and waited. Raven began to chip and shape, shrouding his work under planked planks. Only stray wisps of cedar, a tap of hammer, or groan of rasp escaped the workshop’s dark folds.
Seasons turned as the veiled masterpiece took form, until one chill morning the people awoke to a startling sight. Old Raven had left the workshop doors thrown open in the night!
The towering totem stood unveiled for all to see, its bear, wolf and thunderbird shining even in the faint dawn light. Word spread quickly, and by noon hundreds had gathered, ready to raise the master’s latest legend to the waiting sky.
Raising the Totems: Ceremonies That United the Clans
As one they hauled the towering trunk, ropes straining, voices chanting, until their new icon slid steadfast into the earth.
With pride, hundreds gathered, singing and dancing below while it watched over them, a new sentinel from their past now bound to meet their future.
Once more, the totem had renewed their bonds to clan, culture and the cedar’s endless circle. It was a community celebration, validating the family’s legacy as their icons took a place of honor.
The poles could stand for decades until claimed by time and decay, when new ones would be commissioned to replace them. This cycle renewed the bonds between clans and culture.
The Decline That Nearly Toppled Tradition
After thriving for centuries, totem traditions dwindled in the late 1800s under cultural suppression. But the native people never lost their connection to the poles and the heritage they represented.
Though many vintage poles were lost, the powerful stories persisted in oral histories. A cultural revival was coming that would make them rise once more…
A Renaissance That Rose From the Ashes
By the 1900s, a movement emerged to restore aging poles and resurrect carving. Led by dedicated masters like Bill Reid and others, young apprentices learned almost-lost techniques.
Newly carved poles adorned revived tribal sites. Though modern materials are sometimes used, most carvers stay true to the old ways.
The recovery of this tradition is a statement of identity, a reflection of endurance, and a legacy for future generations.
The Enduring Meaning That Stands the Test of Time
Today, Native villages display both vintage and new totem poles, connecting past and present. The enduring symbols remind people of their lineage, customs and place in the world.
Though styles and materials evolve, the spiritual significance remains, telling the stories that unite the clans as long as the cedars still stand tall.