Native American Totem Poles

Native American totem poles are one of the many arts of cultural significance produced by indigenous peoples, deeply meaningful but also very attractive to the eye of the consumer. For some, Native American totem poles serve as a visual recording of the personal history of a family or the broader history of a tribe, its figures symbolizing stories and events of importance or spiritual traditions and legends. For others, Native American totem poles are decorator touches or souvenirs.

While anthropologists and other researchers disagree about the point in time when Native American totem poles came into being, it is generally agreed that those in the traditional style use carved figures to relate a message in a visual, symbolic way. Some Native American totem poles are specific to a particular family, offering a visual record of family events and generations, while others are of the entire tribe, relating the history of the tribe or stories and legends relating to spiritual traditions, such as creation myths and beliefs.  

Like many of the native people’s arts, such as beadwork and pottery, Native American totem poles are highly sought after works of art. Because they are very time consuming to create, these are among the most highly priced of the native arts. Interest in these beautiful pieces have led to mass production, creating reproductions of Native American totem poles by machine, often by companies far removed from the Native Americans themselves, who do not benefit by their production or sale.

Native American totem poles are a fascinating representation of culture and history, making it easy to see why they have also become a desirable consumer product, as have many other types of indigenous art and hand crafts. The challenge then, for consumers, is to appreciate such meaningful arts without co-opting them or stripping them of their meaning.

Joseph Paige 2006

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