General Facts about Totem Poles


Last Updated: 6 years

On this page is a list interesting facts about totem poles including where the Indian tribes that made them were, why they sculpted totem poles, how they made them, and what materials they used.

Native American Indian Totem Poles General Facts

Raven Totem Pole
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  • The “low man on the totem pole” was the most important figure.
  • Native American Indian totem poles are sculptures carved on poles made from huge trees. These sculptures were made by Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest coast  and coastal Alaska in North America. Why only tribes from this region? This art form was limited to regions where trees were very large and plentiful.
  • The name of this art form “totem pole” is derived from the Algonquian word odoodem meaning “his kinship group.”
  • The figures carved on totem poles often depict characters from tribal legends. Animals are often carved on the poles.
  • Or carvings on totem poles can have symbolic meanings which can be complex.
  • The first European explorers to the Pacific Northwest observed totem poles and it is likely this art form has a long history dating back hundreds or even thousands of years.
  • An authentic full size American Indian totem pole can easily cost over $8,000 U.S. dollars. There are authentic ones for sale in some Native American Indian shops and they are also available for sale online. Tourist shops often sell small scale replicas to the tourists in these areas.
  • Making a totem pole is an extremely labor intensive process. The huge poles were entirely carved by hand. The paint was then handmade and applied. Today, chainsaws are sometimes used to rough out the design of the totem pole, then finer details are finished by hand.
  • Totem poles did not serve a religious purpose to Native Americans, as many objects did. Instead, they were meant to commemorate special occasions such as marriages, births and anniversaries. They sometimes portrayed a brave deed or a shameful act or a death.
  • Considering the extensive amount of work that went into making a totem pole, they were regarded as a sign of wealth and power. They were often found outside the homes of tribal chiefs.

Native American Totem Poles
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Facts about How Native American Indian Totem Poles Were Made

  • Traditional Indian totem poles were carved by hand.
  • Items used to carve out totem poles included shells, wood, bone, stone, antlers, and beaver teeth. When European traders and settlers began populating North America iron tools became available which were excellent for use in making totem poles.
  • The four main paint colors used in a totem pole are black, red, turquoise and white. In the old days, salmon eggs that had been chewed up and spit out were used to create the base of the paint.
  • The time it takes to create a totem pole depends on its intricacy and its size. An experienced carver can expect to spend anywhere from 3 to 9 months constructing one.