Manataka American  Indian Council






The first totems were carved from mature cedar trees and used in the Potlatch ceremonies of families-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.  There were a number of reasons why a particular figure or design was chosen by a clan.  The connection between the clan and the various figures carved into the pole may have been as a result a special gift from the animal, fish or bird spirits.  Or, there may have been a recent encounter with that figure.  Some clans claimed to be descended from certain totem figures.  

The meaning of many totem poles is lost with time. Even some of today's totem polescan not be understood except from one person - it's 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. 

Totem figures are not Gods. Totems are not worshiped like religious icons 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 in the Great Seal of the United States or a Coat of Arms.  These national emblems are roughly equivalent to the meaning bound up in a totem pole except they identified clans not an entire nation.     

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.   

We invite you to discover the wonderful stories and wisdom contained in totem poles.  To learn more about totem poles, visit excellent  internet resources:



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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
DRAGON FLY 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 the Earth by Day
THUNDERBIRD Powerful & Mystical - A Leader
WOLF Intelligence & Leadership - Strong Sense of Family



UNDERSTANDING NORTHWEST COAST ART: A Guide to Crests, Beings, and Symbols

by Cheryl Shearar

A gallery owner and specialist in Northwest Coast First Nations art provides a basic, alphabetically arranged list of words and explanations relating to Northwest Coast First Nations art, including representations of crests, beings, elements, customs, and symbols, and some of the major ceremonies and types of decorated objects. Includes some 65 b&w illustrations. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR. 

Soft Cover, 192pp  $ 32.50

Proceeds from book purchases go to support the nonprofit, cultural, educational and religious purposes of the Manataka American Indian Council.  Thank you for your support.

Notice: Occasionally books may be discontinued or out of stock without prior notice. With written permission, your order may be filled from the 'shelf'.  Shelf books are new, but some may be slightly discolored or sale tags may be still attached. Fulfillment rate: 98.6%.


Manataka does not sell totem poles