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Mystery Totem Poles

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, there was no shortage of totem poles around, though the best ones were the ones that we’d stumble across in what was essentially the middle of nowhere. While most of these mystery totem poles were spotted on the Olympic Peninsula, we actually ran into quite a few in the Cascades as well on our backcountry travels. While we have plenty of pictures from the film camera days and have detailed notes of their locations, we’ve kept the details of these finds close to our chest so as to protect these amazing artifacts as they are all well off the beaten path and most likely seen by very few people.

So, What are totem poles?

Totem poles are monuments created by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people, or events. Totem poles are typically created out of red cedar, a malleable wood relatively abundant in the Pacific Northwest, and would be erected to be visible within a community.

Most totem poles display beings, or crest animals, marking a family’s lineage and validating the powerful rights and privileges that the family held. Totem poles would not necessarily tell a story so much as it would serve to document stories and histories familiar to community members or particular family or clan members.

A totem pole typically features symbolic and stylized human, animal, and supernatural forms. Totem poles are primarily visual representations of kinship, depicting family crests and clan membership. For example, some Kwakwaka’wakw families of northern Vancouver Island belonging to the Thunderbird Clan will feature a Thunderbird crest and familial legends on their poles. Other common crests among coastal First Nations include the wolf, eagle, grizzly bear, thunderbird, killer whale, frog, raven, and salmon. Wealthy and influential families may have more than one crest. Totem poles can also be created to honor a particular event or important person.

Of all the material culture produced by coastal First Nations, the totem pole is likely one of the most recognizable cultural symbols of the Pacific Northwest. The array of different totem pole styles and designs reflect the rich diversity of the First Nations histories and cultures that produced them. This section will explore the meaning and purpose of totem poles, how they are constructed, stylistic variations, and their significance in cultural revitalization initiatives among First Nations… read more >

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