Anthropology: The Significance of Totem Poles Found in Canada

Anthropology: The Significance of Totem Poles Found in Canada

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Works of art that are handcrafted by First Nation members to commemorate their native heritage, ancestry, and significant cultural events, totem poles, can be found worldwide. But, they are also a popular cultural practice of the First Nations of Canada.

Many totem poles are made from western red cedar because it is a rot-resistant wood that is great for carving. Many First Nation people perform ceremonies to give thanks and appreciation for their gift of western red cedarwood. The ceremony is performed before harvesting a new tree to use as a totem pole. 

First Nations take great pride in carving their totem poles into the best representation of significant factors that have taken place in their lives. Some examples of carvings that can be found on a totem pole may include:

  • Crest animals
  • Family lineage
  • Significant meaningful symbols

First Nation totem poles represent wisdom and pride that display their native heritage in artistic creativity. Totem poles are monuments to all First Nation members. They are treated with great respect and admiration by all First Nation members.

Image Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia, totem pole found in Canada
Beautiful Hand-carved Totem Poles Found In Canada.

Symbols Found on Totem Poles

A variety of skilled artwork can be found on totem poles made by First Nations. They represent significant meaning to the individual who carves it. Totem poles can also be carved in honor of a significant event or person. Some examples of meaningful symbols that can be found on totem poles may include:

  • Animals
  • Supernatural forms
  • Family crests
  • Human faces
  • Birds
  • Outstretched wings
  • yoair

  • Dates of significant family events

Totem poles offer a unique variety of talented artwork. They honor the diversity, culture, and history of the First Nation person who carved them. 

Image Source:
There are Many Symbols Found in Totem Poles in Canada and Around the World.

Types of Totem Poles

First Nation totem poles in Canada can come in many styles. Each pole may also vary in height. The most common height for totem poles found in Canada is 18 meters tall. However, some handcrafted poles can be much smaller at a height of just 3 meters high. Totem poles can also be as tall as 20 meters high. The height of each pole depends on its geographical surroundings and its ceremonial uses.

Memorial totem poles built by First Nations are usually the tallest built. There are several memorial totem poles found in British Columbia, Canada. 

Did you know that some memorial totem poles actually contain the ashes of chiefs and other significant members of a tribe? 

It’s true. The ashes of significant members are concealed in a box that is located at the top of the totem pole. How talented is that? By concealing the ashes at the top of the totem pole, they are safe from being tampered with, being stolen, or misplaced.

There are several types of totem poles. Each pole serves a different purpose, such as:

  • Honoring a death or burial 
  • In memory of a chief or high-standing citizen
  • To remember the family heritage
  • To honor family accomplishments
Image Source:
Totem poles come at various heights and sizes depending on their geological location.

Other Types of First Nation Totem Poles Found In Canada

Some First Nation members place a totem pole along the front of their house. They can also sometimes be found at the back doors of First Nation homes. Colorful hand-carved images are carved into their totem poles. These beautiful images tell visitors the story of their family lineages. Some welcoming signs also offer greetings to visitors. Welcoming poles are intended to invite visitors into a First Nations home, offering peace and respect to all visitors who enter their home.

Welcome Poles


A well-known First Nation welcome totem pole is located in Nuu-chah-nulth Reserve in Alberni Valley, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The Hupacasath features beautifully designed outstretched arms carved into the totem pole to welcome its visitors.

Speaker’s Post Totem Poles

Another kind of totem is the speaker’s post onto which the artist carves an image of their ancestry onto the totem pole.

Legacy Poles

Legacy poles are carved in honor of historic events that took place in a First Nations family history.  

The Haida totem pole was erected in 2013 in British Columbia, Canada. This beautifully crafted totem pole commemorates the signing of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement. The agreement took place in 1993 when the Canadian government signed an agreement with Haida. 

The Haida legacy pole was also the first totem pole in Canada to be erected in Gwaii Haanas in more than 130 years.

Healing Totem Poles

Some totem poles are also made for the purpose of healing and educating their visitors about an important cause or issue that has taken place in Canada or around the world.

Charles Joseph erected a totem pole in Montreal, Canada on May 3, 2017, in honor of the victims who suffered abuse in the residential school system of Canada. This totem pole is intended to bring awareness to viewers and foster healing for all visitors to the monument.

Mike Dangeli is currently busy carving his own healing pole in northwestern British Columbia. His work of art will be etched on cedar. The purpose of his healing pole is to honor the countless lives of aboriginal women and children who were either murdered or missing on the Highway of Tears located on Highway 16 in British Columbia, Canada.

Shame Poles

Shame totem poles are not as common among First Nations in Canada. However, they do exist in other parts of the world. Shame poles are intended as an insult to someone who has done the carver wrong in the past. Some tribal chiefs have been known to use shame poles to belittle their opposition or rivals.

One example of a shame pole is the Lincoln Pole that was erected in Saxman, Alaska in April 2017. The original totem pole was built in the 1880s to shame the Security of State for not repaying for gifts that were given to him.

Image Source:
This Seward Shame Pole was erected in Alaska.

Carving a Totem Pole

Traditionally, totem poles have been carved by First Nation male artists. Many of them gained their skill and wisdom for carving masterpieces by watching their fathers or other relatives while crafting totem poles. However, in recent years, women have also taken an interest in the art of carving totem poles.

An adze is an ancient tool that is similar to an ax. Adzes have a smaller blade than an ax that runs sideways instead of up and down. They are often used in the carving of totem poles. Some other more common tools used to help shape various images on the poles may include: 

  • Chisels
  • yoair

  • Axes
  • Chainsaws
  • Carving knives

Plenty of skill and artistic ability is needed to carve a totem pole. A clear insight into the history and cultural significance of the carver is also a requirement in constructing a meaningful totem pole to be admired by its many observers.

Most carvers prefer red cedar for their totem poles because it is a straight grain of wood that is best for carving. Before choosing a suitable tree that will be used as a totem pole, some carvers inspect several trees before finally picking the perfect tree. 

“Each tree is like a human being, and has its own personality and uniqueness,” stated artist Roy Henry Vickers.

After the artist has finished carving their totem poles, color is often added to them with bright colored synthetic paint of the carver’s favorite choice of colors. Other artists choose to leave their totem poles in their natural wood and add a stain to help preserve them. Totem poles are a work of art that can take several months to complete. 

Image Source: Canadian Geographic
A Canadian artist carving a totem pole.

Sculpted in Canada by First Nation members, totem poles have deep and meaningful cultural significance to aboriginal roots, traditions, and beliefs.  Proudly on display, totem poles can often be seen in various parks and outdoor locations throughout the country. 

Because of Canada’s cold, damp weather, many totem poles that were designed before 1860 are sadly non-existent anymore. Unless they have been moved from their original locations to a museum that features them indoors on display for visitors, many older totem poles could not withstand Canadian weather. They have decayed over the years. 

Some outstanding totem poles that were carved in 1880, can be viewed at the Royal British Columbia Museum located in Victoria, British Columbia. 

The Museum of Anthropology, located inside the University of British Columbia also has some interesting totem poles on display for visitors of the museum to view.

Hand-carved totem poles are an expression of First Nations culture in Canada and can often be spotted along the Pacific Northwest Coast, Vancouver, and British Columbia among other locations throughout Canada. 

The traditional totem pole has survived over the years despite political, territorial, and cultural battles between Canada and the status and rights of aboriginal First Nations living in Canada. 

Although totem poles are characterized as a Canadian identity, it’s important to take into consideration that totem poles do not define or identify Canada. However, they do identify First Nation members who live within Canada and have profound respect for their heritage.

Totem poles have remained a sacred monument to First Nation members and have deep spiritual meaning. Each monument holds tremendous ancestral roots within its hand-carved characteristics. The countless hard work that went into the making of hand-carved totem poles does not depict a nation, country, or organization. However, it does tell a blessed tale of a First Nations family history, their sacred beliefs, and their cultural identity as a proud First Nation.

Image Source: Vancouver Planner
Totem Pole Located in the Museum of Anthropology located in Vancouver, Canada

Where Can You Find Totem Poles In Canada?


Totem poles were first created by the First Nations of Canada’s Northwestern Coastal Tribe and many can be found in the British Columbia area of Canada. However, totem poles can also be found in other locations all around Canada in parks, museums, and adorning the entrances to many native reservations throughout Canada honoring their heritage and family traditions. Some notable totem poles worth visiting in Canada can be found in the following cities:

 Jasper, Alberta

The Two Brothers totem pole was built in 2011 in Jasper, Alberta. The Raven totem pole stood in the same location for 100 years prior to its erection. The new Two Brothers totem pole stands 45 feet tall and is decorated with vibrant and eye-pleasing colors of blue, red, and black. It attracts many viewers year-round.

Ottawa, Ontario

The Canadian Museum of History is located in Canada”s national capital of Ottawa, Ontario. Here, you can find an indoor collection of First Nations totem poles from Canadian First Nations”s including:

  • First People of the Northwest Coast
  • Tsimshian Pre-history
  • Immemorial Time

The majestic display offers an indoor walk-through exhibition of 6 traditional Indian houses for visitors to tour. It focuses on aboriginal culture and proudly displays the totem poles from various First Nation regions of Canada.

There is also another unique totem pole on display in the Byward Market in downtown Ottawa, Ontario. The figures on this totem pole are hard-carved by First Nation people and represent the true meaning of their traditions and culture. The highest symbol on the totem pole is an image of their “Fraveshi,” or their personal spirit guide.

Windsor, Ontario

In 1982, a painted totem pole was erected in Windsor, Ontario. The painted red cedar totem pole was funded by the Rotary Club of Windsor and stands 50 feet tall, proudly on display, at Sandpoint Beach for spectators to view. It took 14 months for the talented First Nation carver to finish it.

Final Thoughts and Fun Facts About Totem Poles

1. The word totem came from the Algonquin word “odoodem” meaning “kinship group,” family, or clan. Totem poles represent First Nation families.

2. Totem poles were originally painted in the colors black, red, and white. It has been rumored that to mix the paint, natives chewed up salmon eggs, spit them out, and then used them for paint.

Image Source: Ancient Origins
Black and Red Totem Poles Can Be Found in Canada.

3. “The low man on the totem pole” is actually the most important image on the totem pole because it is the easiest to see when visitors look at the totem pole from the ground up. 

4. Did you know that all totem poles are hand-carved?


5. Some totem poles are erected to represent special occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, marriages, or even deaths.

6. Did you know that back in the good old days, before tools were invented, totem poles were actually carved out of shells, bones, rocks, animal antlers, beaver’s teeth, and pieces of bark and wood?

7. Even though totem poles existed 100’s of years ago, they are still just as significant to First Nation members of Canada today as they were back then.



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