About the www.Alaskool.org project and its developers

III Types of Totempoles

What is generally referred to as a "totempole" may be any one of a half dozen types found on the Northwest Coast that have been variously described by travelers as totem poles, totem posts, totem pillars, house posts and totem sticks. The one thing that they have in common is that they were all carved of red cedar in the traditional Northwest Coast art style and none could really be called "ancient." Their difference lay in their use and the purpose for which they were erected.

The six types in order of their probable development are:
(1) The house pillar and false house pillar
(2) Mortuary pole
(3) Memorial pole
(4) Heraldic pole
(5) Potlatch pole
(6) Ridicule pole

The house pillar was in common use throughout the totempolar region at the time of the earliest explorations. The Haidas used four of these pillars to support the central rafters of their massive community houses. Their carvings illustrated stories from Haida mythology and sometimes one story was continued over all four poles. Tribes to the south imitated the Haida pillar but it became less ornate the farther it was removed from Haida influence.

The Tlingit did not carve the posts on which the beams rested but placed a false pillar against the supporting pillars so that the effect was the same. Apparently some houses had all eight pillars carved, for Swanton in the 26th report of the Bureau of Ethnology stated that "when he was about to undertake any task a man who had eight house posts in his house had to fast eight days, one for each post. Slaves were always killed and their bodies thrown into the holes in which the house posts were to be inserted."

Photo page 42
Top left—Ridicule pole, Shakes Island, Wrangell. See text page 49 for story of this pole. (Photo by Author.) Middle left—Devil’s Thumb totempole on Shustak’s Point, Wrangell. Devil’s Thumb is holy mountain to Talque-di, for it was on this they found refuge during flood. Carving represents personified mountain. (Photo by U. S. Forest Service.) Bottom left—Katalla house pillars. No totempoles are recorded from any point north of Katalla, highwater mark of Tlingit northern expansion. (Photo courtesy Dr. Will Chase.) Top right—The way this fine house pillar, standing amid Klinkwan ruins, dwarfs man gives indication of size of old Indian community houses. (Photo by Author.) Bottom right—These Haidite (Queen Charlotte black argellite) carvings were inspiration of later tall totempoles in red cedar. Models set art style for entire northwest coast. (Wickersham collection, Photo by Winter & Pond.)

The above-mentioned custom of dispatching slaves and placing their bodies in the holes in which totempoles were to be erected is doubtless very old and long-since abandoned although stories of it still persist in all the native villages. It was significant that no bones were found beneath any of the poles removed during the U. S. Government rehabilitation program.

Owing to the fact that the house pillars were indoors and therefore protected from the elements, many of them of considerable age are still preserved and intact in the native villages.

At Klukwan, seat of the Chilkats, no less than four houses still retain their house posts although the houses themselves are now of modern construction. In the "whale house" are four handsome posts still retaining their native paint. Sitka also has house posts in several of the houses in the native section although this fact is not generally known, even to resident Sitkans. These pillars are beautifully inlaid with bluegreen abalone shell, and in some cases decorated with human hair and ermine. At Wrangell, in the rehabilitated Chief Shakes community house are four houseposts from an earlier house at Old Wrangell or Kotslitan. It was once considered a chiefly act to chop a figure from one of these priceless pillars, and one of the Wrangell pillars has been thus defaced. To the natives, a post thus disfigured increased in value and the owner gained importance by his vandalism.

Photo page 44
The Governor Brady Totempole. This pole, with four house pillars, was the gift of Son-i-yat, Haida chief of Kasaan, to the district of Alaska through Governor Brady. It was brought to Sitka in 1902 on the Revenue Cutter Rush and erected by prisoners. It is regarded as Alaska’s finest totempole. [Photo courtesy of the Photo Shop Studio, Sitka]

Louis Shotridge, a Chilkat Indian, writing in the Museum Journal of the University of Pennsylvania (1913), had this to say of house posts:

"With the introduction of steel and iron implements among the tribes of the Northwest Coast, totem poles became numerous. Numbers of them could be seen in front of houses in the more southern villages. But before the modern tools, it is said, totempoles were rare, not only on account of the difficulty in the making—as stone and wood were used for tools—but the desire to keep them strictly distinctive was a reason for their scarcity.

"One often hears it said by the older people that originally totem poles were used inside of the houses only, to support the roof beams. The carvings and paintings on them were usually those of the family crests. These posts were regarded with respect very much as the flag of a nation. Even when the Chilkats had acquired modern tools with which to make totem poles they did not fill their villages with tall poles like some other tribes, chiefly because they wanted to keep to the original idea.

"The figures seen on a totem poles are the principal subjects taken from tradition treating of the family’s history. These traditions may treat of the family’s rise to prominence or of the heroic exploit of one of its members. From such subjects the crests are derived…."

Another reason why the Chilkats did not go in for tall totempoles is that they are several hundred miles beyond the range of the great red cedars. The best of these grow in the Queen Charlotte Islands and none of any consequence exist north of Wrangell. Even for their interior house posts the Chilkats had to import cedar from Wrangell.

The Mortuary Pole

The mortuary pole as first observed by explorers in the Tlingit country where this pole is m ost common, consisted simply of a plain (sometimes painted) pole on top of which a box containing ashes of the dead was placed. Later, a totem figure was placed at the top and the ashes interred in a crypt excavated at the back of the pole. This type is the most common totempole found in Alaska. A later development was further embellished by having a story carved thereon, as in heraldic or potlatch poles. The Kadashan poles of Wrangell are a good example of this type.

The mortuary pole went out as the missionaries came in, for they introduced the Christian burial and in very few years cremation ceased altogether.

Memorial poles had a variety of functions. In Tlingit territory they doubled for the Haida Potlatch poles and upon the passing of the mortuary pole, were erected much in the manner of tomb stones although generally at a distance from the grave. They were not necessarily raised for the dead alone, but could honor the living. The Raven pole at Wrangell was erected by Chief Shakes VI in honor of a dead and a living son. Memorial poles were erected by the nephew or brother of a dead chief within a year of his taking his deceased uncle or brother’s place, this being part of his obligation.

The Real Family Tree

The Heraldic or family pole was first observed on Langara Island (Q.C. Is.) in 1790. It was placed against the middle front of the house and a hole near its base served as a doorway to the house. It was originally short and broad but as years went on developed into a tall, stately pole, beautifully carved and painted. Its legend was from the mythological history of the family residing within. This pole spread to the neighboring Tsimshians, Tlingits, Bella Bellas and Kwakiutl.

photo p47

The Gonakadet and the supernatural Grizzly Bear are the original mortuaries that stood before Shakes’ house. Duplicates now stand in exact spot. Gonakadet pole on left held ashes of father and mother of Chief Shakes VI. Ashes of his younger brother were deposited in Grizzly Bear pole to right. (See text for stories of these poles.) [Photo by Author]

The Potlatch Pole

The Potlatch pole of the Haidas is a most recent development of the totempole family, probably not over a hundred years old at the most. It was the result of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of middle class Indians, resulting from the fur trade, wages sent home by Indian seamen and gains from prostitution at Victoria, plus good steel tools. New-rich chiefs now began to vie with each other, socially, and sought to raise their respective social standings through means of the Potlatch.

The poles erected to record and validate such events were detached, elaborately carved and painted and of great height, some reaching sixty to eighty feet. Beginning about 1850 and continuing until 1880, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit sought to outdo each other in erecting these handsome poles. Where once they were the emblem of old and distinguished nobility, now they were paraded everywhere by the newly rich. The fad went one hundred fifty miles inland, up the Skeena river, where it continued until after 1900. The Kwakiutl at Alert Bay didn’t get started until after 1890 but were still erecting them there less than a decade ago.

The Potlatch pole of the Haidas is called "se-at-lang-lae-ee" (story-master) or "wath-lal" (give more). It is often distinguished by having at the top one to three high-hatted "watchmen." Beneath this is the totem of the chief who gave the Potlatch and erected the pole. Then follows a story belonging to the chief and finally, near the base, the totem of his wife. It is only on a pole of this type that the opposite totems of a man and his wife appear. In this case it is necessary in order to show that she has an interest in the proceeds to come from the Potlatch represented by this pole. The great number of toads seen protruding from ears, eyes and in vacant spaces are said to have been carved there "to prevent the pole from rotting."

The Ridicule Pole

The sixth type of totempole is called the "ridicule" or "shame" pole. It is generally erected for the purpose of ridiculing some person of high standing for failing to meet or recognize an obligation. Possibly more of these were erected to shame white men than native chiefs for generally (but not always) when a white man appears on a totempole it is to ridicule him. It is said that the Haidas sometimes carved a person on a pole upside down for the same purpose. However, the commonest Haida practice when a man failed to pay his debts was to "put him on a blanket." The party to whom the debt was owed would have a blanket made, on which was the totem of the debtor. Whenever he wore this the debtor was shamed. His only recourse was to "buy the blanket," that is, pay the debt and destroy the blanket.

The best example of a Tlingit ridicule pole extant is the one recently reconstructed at Wrangell on Chief Shakes’ Island. It consists of a T-shaped roost on which are perched three huge frogs. These are said to represent three Kiksadi women (whose totem is the frog) who allegedly co-habited with three of Chief Shakes’ slaves. After a time Shakes presented the Kiksadi chief with a bill for the keep of the three women who were living in his household. The Kiksadi chief would not pay, however, holding that the women had disgraced themselves by marrying beneath their station and had been ejected from the tribe, hence he was not responsible for them. Shakes was not satisfied, so, according to custom, he had the ridicule pole carved with the idea of forcing payment. Whether or not the debt was ever recognized and paid is unknown today. But when the pole was reconstructed from early drawings there was considerable feeling aroused and threats were made to destroy the carving before it could be erected. In other words, some of the natives took the attitude that a "note" once paid had been re-written and payment was again being demanded. (See picture, page 42.)

It is said that at Sitka a ridicule pole was once erected to shame a white trader who had been "adopted" into the Raven phratry with considerable ceremony and had been given presents. According to custom he should have given a potlatch in due time, repaying his benefactors with interest. Failing in this, a pole was constructed, at the top of which was the white man in the form of a raven and beneath this was the robber woodpecker angrily protesting that the white man was a bigger thief than he was.

Kake village also had a ridicule pole erected to show contempt for a Russian that had killed one of the tribesmen. The Russian was carved realistically at the top of the pole and beneath it was a raven attacking a halibut. The halibut represents the white man and the two figures no doubt conveyed the threat (or promise) that the deed would be avenged.

Memorial and mortuary poles have modern versions in most Northwest coast cemeteries. These are marble and granite tombstones on which the totems of the dead are carved to order at commercial monumental works. But the ridicule pole also has found its way into modern cemeteries.

A few years ago a prominent Kake native received the disquieting news that his mother, long since dead, was being ridiculed on a Wrangell tombstone. He and his clan, greatly distressed, pooled their earnings and went to Wrangell. What took place there is not known to the writer but the group eventually returned to Kake bearing a marble tombstone on which was carved the likeness of a woman. A gathering was held, after which the tombstone was publicly destroyed. Thus a debt, real or fancied, of long standing was paid and the evidence of it destroyed.

Mention should be made of the miniature totempoles of the Haida that were first made shortly after contact with white men and traded as souvenirs. These were made from a black indurated clay called "argillite" but more often erroneously labeled "slate," the better specimens being inlaid with haliotis shell. This stone, mined near Skidegate in the Queen Charlotte Islands (and nowhere else), hardens upon exposure to air but is still soft enough to be carved with woodworking tools. Since they somewhat preceded the elaborate Haida Potlatch poles, it is reasonable to suspect that they might have served as models for the latter. A few are still being made but they do not compare with the earlier ones made by the famous Edenshaw carvers of Masset whose work in stone, metal and wood set the style and standard for the Northwest Coast for three generations.

Many Kanakas brought in as crewmen of the fur traders were already living among the Haidas and marrying into the tribe and their influence is often seen in the style of carving, particularly in the wavy hair often seen in the figures in these fine argillite carvings. In another chapter other Kanaka (Hawaiian and Maori) influences on totempole carving is discussed.

<<Chapter II<<

 

Alaskool Footer

Alaskool Central | Alaskool Topics | Curriculum | Places | What's New | Alaskool Resources | Links | About Alaskool | Guestbook | Search | Contact Alaskool

Copyright 1998-2004, UAA-ISER. Individual copyrighted materials on this site are used with permission from the author or copyright holder and are provided for educational and informational purposes only.

This site has graciously been supported by the Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage, First Alaskans Foundation, CIRI Foundation, Alaska Humanities Forum, and U.S. Department of Education.
Alaskool is developed and maintained and hosted at
Institute of Social and Economic Research
University of Alaska Anchorage
3211 Providence Drive
Anchorage, Alaska 99508 USA
(907) 786-7710