The traditional type of Native American totem pole often serves as a visual record of the history of a family or tribe. In some, specific events are captured and other types of Native American totem pole feature a telling of a particular tribe’s spiritual traditions, such as a creation story.
While often anthropologists and others who study the Native American totem pole may disagree on the purpose of the totem pole or its roots in indigenous culture – with some believing it to be a post European art and others believing it to have a long history in native culture – one thing is certainly true. The Native American totem pole captures the imagination with its skillful carving and fascinating symbolism.
The Native American totem pole is not a part of all indigenous cultures, as not all tribes lived in areas or in ways that made these items practical or possible. This form of visual art is primarily the expression of native peoples that lived in and around heavily forested areas, where they would have access to the materials required for the making of the Native American totem pole, and those who lived a less nomadic lifestyle than other tribes. Anthropologists point out that as the European came to hold more land that the indigenous peoples were forced to curtail their nomadic lifestyles and stay on the lands allotted them, relating this to the development of this art form.
The figures and forms used in the creation of a traditional type of Native American totem pole are those that are familiar to the specific culture within which it is made, which allows the pole to be read and to impart its particular history or story. Thus, there may be varied symbolism between tribes, though certain figures found on some types of Native American totem poles may have a somewhat universal meaning among indigenous peoples.
This art continues today, with the Native American totem pole still in use for recording family and tribe history and special events. Fascinating and often haunting, the Native American totem pole is rich with symbolism and meaning, both in a historic context and a modern one.