Canada | Pacific Northwest First Nations

Totem pole history

Totem poles had been reported by white sailors back in the late eighteenth century. Carved from large red cedars, they belonged to families of the Salish, Nootka, the Kwakiutl, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Bella Coola, and other West Coast First Nations.

Totem poles evoked legends and traditions familiar to the entire tribe. They were raised at ceremonies like the potlatch, and were explained again in subsequent potlatches to keep the memory of the clan alive. A totem pole might represent up to fifteen figures, stacked one atop the other and read from top to bottom. Totem poles could illustrate the adventures of the ancestors during their migration, sea monsters that were sometimes half-bird, half-fish, or the man of the deep, a creature that appeared to the ancestors during their travels. In the Upper Skeena region, totem poles would stay standing for 50 to 60 years due to moderate rainfall and the gravel-filled or sandy soil.

The golden age of the totem poles lasted for some 40 to 50 years from about 1880 onward. After this, the migration of First Nations populations to the fish factories, diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox, the abolition of slavery in the tribes, and the British law banning the potlatch nearly wiped out the tradition entirely.

[peinture #03046]
Totem Pole
1949, summer
Canada, British Colombia, Kitwanga
Study, gouache, on studio paper
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