Saturday 14 July 2012

Totem Pole

Totem Poles are carved by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast in the North America. I was able to see several of them in British Columbia.

Knowledge Totem

Carved by the Master Carver Cicero August and his sons Darrel and Doug August of the Cowichan Tribes the Knowledge Totem stands on the premises of the British Columbia Parliament. The loon, fisherman, bone game player and frog represents lessons of the past and hope for the future.

A Gitxsan Totem Pole (left) & Kwakwa'wakw Pole In Thunderbird park in Victoria

The word totem means  - his kinship group. The totems are made of cedar wood. The totem poles may recount legends or are mortuary structures.

Eagle is a common motive in several Totems

Among the common motives of the totem stories are eagles, ravens, human beings and their children, bears, frogs, sharks and fish. Among birds that appear on totem poles, besides the eagles and ravens, are woodpeckers, hawks and several mythological birds. The highest in the rank is the Thunderbird. The Thunderbird Park in Victoria containing several totems is named after this bird. 

A Haida Totem Pole in Thunderbird Park, Victoria

A totem pole is normally made of a single piece of wood and could be higher than 40 feet. The highest ones are even above 40 meters high!

Totem with reflection

The traditional tribal styles of the totems are the Haida, Coast Salish, Nuxalk, Kwakiutl and the Tsimshian style. The Kwakiutl are very brightly painted whereas the Tsimshian are very simple. Haida style is mainly commemorative.

Totem Poles outside the Vancouver Airport

Each totem pole depicts a story but the totem poles are not objects of worship. As the totems are made of wood they decay with time so one would not find really old totems.

The Yosef Wosk Reflecting Pool

The Yosef Wosk Reflecting Pool gives the feeling of a much longer totem due to its reflection in the pool. The pool and the totem are located on the premises of Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Mortuary Pole

In the Pole above the eagle is at the top then it is human mother with child/cub, then a grizzly bear with child/cub. Again these are very common motives on a totem pole. The ordering on the poles is significant (in all the totems and not only this one) from the fact that higher the figures on the pole more is the prestige. However, this is contentious as some say that the opposite is true i.e.the figures at the bottom are more important and that is why greater detail and care is given while carving them compared to the figures at the top.

Mortuary House Frontal Pole

In the photo above on the pole at the top are the watchmen, then raven/human with human/bird face on tail, then a bear with raven between its legs, then a frog like creature and finally the bear with frog in mouth, wolf between legs and cub between ears. Yes some of the totems could be very abstract!

Double Mortuary Pole

The Double Mortuary Pole in the above photo shows shark or a dogfish. Transformation of animals and birds into humans and sometimes from humans to animals or birds is a very common theme of the totem poles.

Several Totem Poles & Two Haida Houses

In earlier times a typical native village consisted of about 50 houses like the ones in the photo above each housing a dozen or so families. The house front poles normally depict the success of  families and therefore the bigger and better the poles higher was the status of the families.

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