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Totem pole


Among Native American groups on the north-west coast of North America, totem poles are highly visible. Often up to 18 metres high, they are placed in front of the homes of their owners, and many are seen in each village. They are made from single logs of Pacific Coast red cedar.

A man in Haida society has the potential to earn a number of names throughout life for his exploits: as a whale hunter, as a great carver, or as a talented speechmaker, for example. A person who did extremely well would amass names describing his talents, and would attain rights and privileges associated with his status. His fame would be commemorated with a totem pole, his deeds and stories told on the pole through carvings.

Such an honour brings with it the need for his family to amass sufficient wealth, often over years, to pay for a first feast due when the log is felled and brought to the village. A second feast occurs when the totem pole is erected.

This 12-metre totem pole, erected at Skidegate Village (British Columbia, Canada), consists of four major carvings representing some of the totems that traditionally travel through the maternal line. From base to top they are Grizzly Bear, Eagle, Killer Whale and Frog.

Other figures carved on and around the totems refer to the narratives surrounding the commemoration. The removable segmented cylinder at the top of the pole indicates the number of potlatch feasts given by the owner and his descendants over the life of the pole. It was obtained by the museum in 1911 from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Totem pole, featuring eagle (19th century)
 Totem pole, featuring eagle (19th century)

 Lower section of totem pole featuring the Grizzly Bear and Eagle (top)

 Upper section of totem pole featuring the Killer Whale and Frog (top)

 Totem pole on display (rear)
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Totem pole, featuring eagle (19th century), natural pigments on Pacific Coast red cedar
Dimensions H 1190 x diam. 120 cm
Registration No. X 17074
Image source: Museum Victoria

© Museum Victoria Australia