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British Columbia Totem Poles
Totem Poles

British Columbia Totem Poles

The first totems were carved from mature cedar trees and used in the Potlatch ceremonies of clans of the Pacific Northwest, primarily Alaska and British Columbia.  They were carved to represent the emblem of the family as a reminder of its history. A totem is carved and placed at the front entrance of the family longhouse to honor its ancestors, the clan’s standing, rights and accomplishments, to record a memorable ceremony or record a spiritual experience.  A totem pole is a symbol of the qualities, experience and exploits of the clan. 

The totem carvings tell a story, revealed only if one knows the meaning assigned to various animals, fish, birds and designs and where they are placed on the pole.  The symbolism of animals can differ by region. Clans or tribes may have chosen a particular figure because of the connection between itself and the animal, fish or bird spirit. Some clans claimed to be descended from totem figures and represented that on their poles. In other cases, there may have been a meaningful encounter with that figure in nature.The original meaning of many totem poles is often lost with time. Even some of today’s totem poles cannot be correctly explained except by one person—its owner. Understanding the symbolism and stories hidden within the totem pole is more than a simple exercise in learning the attributed meanings of the figures.  It is possible to know the meaning assigned a figure by the people of the Northwest, but it is not always possible to know its significance to the over-all story. 

It is important to realize that unlike other symbols represented as icons around the world, totem figures are not Gods. Totems are not worshiped nor used as a talisman.  They were never used to ward off evil spirits and claims of bizarre, magical “totemism” practices are fiction. 

A totem pole may be compared to the symbolism portrayed by the specific colors and pattern of a Scottish Tartan, or the symbols in a family Coat of Arms. Totem poles are carved today by both native and non-native people.  They have become a highly valued art form and a symbol of pride and tradition for the people of the Pacific Northwest. Totem poles were painted with a type of fish egg tempera and colors were limited to subdued shades of red, black, green, and blue. European paints were introduced in 1830 and poles produced after this time displayed a variety of brighter colors.

Symbols of NW Indigenous People
BEAVER, Creative, Artistic and Determined
BEAR, Strength, Learned Humility,
Motherhood, Teaching
BUMBLEBEE, Honesty, Pure Thinking -
Willingness and Drive
COPPER, Wealth and Prestige
DOGFISH, Persistence and Strength -
A Born Leader
DOVE, Love, Gentleness and Kindness
DRAGONFLY, Ever-changing Life
EAGLE, Great Strength, Leadership and Prestige
EAGLE FEATHER, Good Luck to Both
Giver and Receiver
FROG, Spring & New Life -
Communicator, Stability
HALIBUT, Life protector, Strength and Stability
HAWK, Strength, Far-Sighted
HERON, Patience, Graceful and Easy Going
HUMMINGBIRD, Love, Beauty,
Intelligence, Spirit Messenger
KILLER WHALE, Traveler & Guardian -
Symbol of Good
KINGFISHER, Luck, Patience,
Speed and Agility
LOON, Peace, Tranquility -
Generous Giving Nature
MOON, Protector and Guardian
of the Earth by Night
OTTER, Trusting, Inquisitive and Bright -
Loyal Friendship
OWL, Wisdom
RAVEN, Creation & Knowledge -
Bringer of the Light
SALMON, Dependability and Renewal -
A Provider
SEAL, Bright, Inquisitive, Organized
SUN, Healing Energy, Guardian
of Earth by Day
THUNDERBIRD, Powerful & Mystical -
A Leader
Wolf, Intelligence & Leadership -
Strong Sense of Family


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