Few people are truly able to appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into creating the beautiful structures known as totem poles. The origin of these masterpieces is unknown, as their lifespan is shorted to a little over one hundred years, and hence there is no record of their existence prior to the nineteenth century.
During the mid-nineteenth century, Christian missionaries incorrectly claimed that the poles were objects of ungodly worship, and pushed for their destruction and cessation. The twentieth century however, gave way to scholars and artists who aimed to revive the popularity of the totem poles. The perseverance lead to a gradual increase in creation and erection, and native artists today are still creating and celebrating the ancient structures that illustrate artistic ability, traditional styles, heritage and rank, among other things.
Although science and modern technology would seem to make the process of creating totem poles easier, native artists still prefer to use traditional methods, which usually take about a year from start to finish. Typical commission for a native artist ranges in tens of thousands of dollars, and each project become their primary source of income. There are replicas that are significantly smaller and created from various substances like glass, stone, and other non-traditional media. After a totem pole is completed, a ceremony follows with a lavish potlatch and education about tradition and heritage.
The meanings and interpretations of the structures vary as much as the totem poles themselves. Each pole is intricately inscribed with various three dimensional, colorful versions of meaningful icons like masks, canoe boats, weapons, huts, and people who represent leadership. Each set of pictures depict a story or tale of some sort, be it a victory, a battle, or other important historical landmark. Spatial order is also believed to interpret importance and rank, though the top and bottom spots are interchangeable and left up to the artist’s discretion.
It is nearly impossible for these structures to be properly maintained after their erection. Because they are made out of wood, moisture such as rain and snow begin to deteriorate the wood, causing them to lean and eventually be removed because of safety hazards. Traditionally, totem poles stood around forty feet high, but through evolution trees have gotten substantially shorter and thicker, and thus so have the poles. This change has afforded a slightly longer lifespan because the pole can undergo more rotting before becoming a danger to those passing by.
Joseph Paige © 2006