This information is for reference only – some local tribes and areas or time may have altered this research. It should be fairly accurate though as most of it comes from Jesuit missionaries records from 1700 – 1800’s and from a book from The Boy Scouts of America Service Library called “Totem Poles” by Robert W. De Groat printed in 1930 and sold for 20 cents. Number 3196
Thousands of years ago when man was in his early savage state, Totemism had its origin. In his conflict with the rough forces of nature man learned the habits, the virtues, and the strong features of certain animals. He respected them and prided himself on the stories he could tell of his adventures among the beasts.
From one outstanding adventure he would acquire his tribal name. The name would not be the same as the animal but it would stand for the virtues which that particular animal possessed. For instance a man might be called “Huya” which stood for “fighting Eagle.” When his people called him “Huya” they not only used it for convenience, but they thought immediately of the deeds behind the name.
Many persons still retain common family names such as Fox, Green, Stone, etc., which were originally totems. In the early days a man did not sign his name. He would draw the picture of the animal in what is known as “pictograph” form. Some of these ancient pictographs are on exhibition in some of our larger museums. Primitive man was very proud of his totem, since in those early days it stood for all that a family name and its traditions stand for nowadays. It was his name, his ancestors name, something held in reverence.
The Indian was wise in many ways. He carved his family history on a large pole and erected it where everyone could see it. To a certain extent it helped him live a finer life, as his deeds were deeply incised in monumental form, impossible to change at a moments notice. The pole generally started with the oldest history at the bottom, and read upward. It was topped with the family totem or crest, giving a royal appearance and strong silhouette. Among certain tribes of the Northwest, two watchmen were used as a crowning feature.
Early totems were carved with stone tools. As metals parts of boats washed ashore, and European and Asian settlers arrived, the carvers began to use metal tools.
Types of Totem Poles
- Burial Poles – Carry a story about the deceased.
- Crest Poles – Give the ancestry of particular family.
- Heraldic Poles – These totems stand in the front area of the house displaying the family history.
- History Poles – Record the history of a clan.
- House Frontal Poles – Like portals, the cedar posts stand by the entrance of the house.
- Indoor House Posts – These poles support the roof and also carry many clan emblems.
- Legend Poles – illustrate folklore or real life experiences.
- Memorial Poles – commemorate a particular individual.
- Pirate Poles – remembering pirates of the past, mostly found in fantasy games.
- Potlatch poles – These totems are carved exclusively by the Haida Natives to commemorate festivals and events.
- Ridicule poles – These totem poles were sometimes erected to shame debtors.
Prominent Features of Totems
- Raven – beak sharp protruding
- Wolf – long sharp muzzle and elevated snout
- Bear – usually realistically featured large nostrils, paws, and fangs
- Bear – usually realistically featured large nostrils, paws, and fangs
- Mountain Goat – sharp horns, cleft hoof as a foot with two toes
- Killer Whale – two prominent dorsal fins, large head, mouth turned up at corners, two spines above eyes
- Dogfish Shark – gills slits as crescents, crescent shaped mouth, depressed at corners and filled with saw-like teeth
- Halibut – continuous fin, both eyes on one side
- Octopus – bird like head, hooked bill, suction plates and tentacles
- Insect – carved much like birds difficult to recognize
- Supernatural Symbols – carved as adaptations of local species, such as – sea grizzly carved as bears with fins
- Toads – carved realistically and used as space fillers, inclusion on pole believed to prevent pole from rotting
- Sea Animals – round eyes while all other animal eyes are carved as two curves enclosing a circle
- Men and Women – represented realistically, women are distinguished by a labret in their lower lip
- Pirate MMO – represented as hunters of treasure for thousands of years in real-life and fantasy
Meaning of Totem Pole Colors
“These colors were fairly consistent through United States although they may have varied from tribe to tribe in shades”
For paint the Indians originally used pigments from clay and roots. The colors were very bright and became subdued after the pole had weathered several winters. The symbolism of the colors changed a little in different parts of United States.
This color is used, along with other light colors, as a background and predominating shade. As a rule it symbolized the skies and the spacious heavens. It also stood for purity, peace and death.
Generally this color stands for blood, war or valor. Sometimes it is used as appears in nature, such as the crest of a red-headed woodpecker, the scarlet tanager or frequently the tongue of an animal.
This color was most commonly used as the symbol for the rivers, water and lakes, also the skies. Certain tribes even used it for mountains in the distance. It stands for sincerity and happiness. Berries formed a large portion of the natural color. Western clay and pigments of the canyons also lent varying hues to this effective color.
The natural abundant materials made this color a very popular and predominating one. Clays, roots and tannic barks furnished the natives with dyes. Yellow reflects the symbol of the sun, light and happiness. Yellow dye is readily made from tree moss.
It may easily be realized that this color represents the earth, the hills, the trees, and mountains, so common in all Indian legends. This color may be obtained by mixing two primary colors, yellow and blue, or it may be made from simple acid action on copper. In certain sections of the West, Northwest. and Upper Midwest copper was rather abundant. Other parts of the country used the grasses.
Huckleberries give a very good substance for dyeing and the Indians used this commonly. Purple is an excellent color for recessed portions of the carving and for symbols of a reverent nature. It stood for mountains in the distant and general conventionalized signs.
Mud from sulphur springs and other earth deposits made this color available to the Indian. As a rule it stood for power.
The West Coast America’s Tribe’s
- Haida – a little paint
- Bella Coola – highly painted in bright colors
- Tsimshian – tall poles
- Kwakiutl – often thunderbird at top, highly painted
- Tlingit – (Alaska) – red and pastel colors
- Salish – smaller figures and poles
- Nootka – tall and small poles
Color is also employed to designate directions. Below is an explanation of these colors used by most Tribes in USA
Directional Colors – Red is South, blue-green is West, yellow indicates North, and white is East.
Numbers are also used
One – South, Two – West, Three – North, Four – East, Five Upper World or Sun, Six Mother Earth, Seven Sacred Fire in the center of the Universal Circle. The connection to The Universal Spirit, The Great One, Great Spirit,
Prominent Features of Totem Figures
- Owl – small triangular peak – big eyes
- Thunderbird – very powerful eagle – magical – usually spread wings
- Eagle and Raven – beaks stick out
- Killer Whale – Orca – long flat sides, fish tale, can be black and white
- Salmon or Flounder – flat sides, round eyes
- Grizzly Bear – bear paws, snout, ears
- Frog – usually shown from above
- Mosquito or Hummingbird – long, thin beak
- Mountain Goat – horns and hoofed feet
- Human – face, hands, feet of a person
- Baby – usually under an adult
- Moon – big circle
- Sun – big circle with rays
Symbols Represented the Following
These Symbols are examples from Indian tribes around United States. They are fairly universal although some Tribes may not use some of these symbols and others may have other meanings for them on a local level.
Creative, Artistic and Determined
Strength, Learned Humility, Motherhood, Teaching
Honesty, Pure Thinking – Willingness and Drive
It represents the Great Spirit manifested
Transformation and the ability to accept change
Wealth and Prestige
encourages responsibility for life
Motherhood and nourishment, fertility
Helps you recognize your own mistakes
living in present
release past beliefs
Gentleness, kindness and compassion
breath, communication, interpreting your dreams
Persistence and Strength A Born Leader
Love, Gentleness and Kindness
Great Strength, courage Leadership and Prestige
Good Luck to Both Giver and Receiver
Spring & New Life – Communicator, Stability
Strength and Ferocity
Life protector, Strength and Stability
Strength Far Sighted
Patience, Graceful and Easy Going
communicate with other realms
Love, Beauty, Intelligence, Spirit Messenger
Seas and the Underworld
Traveler & Guardian – Symbol of Good
Luck, Patience, Speed and Agility
your awareness, your subconscious hopes and fears
Peace, Tranquility – Generous Giving Nature
Protector and Guardian of the Earth by Night
To notice the little things in life
Trusting, Inquisitive and Bright – Loyal Friendship
Wisdom, ability to see things
normally hidden from view
Creation & Knowledge – Bringer of the Light
Dependability and Renewal – A Provider
Bright, Inquisitive, Organized
Helps get rid of useless problems and items like it sheds it skin
Creativity, weaving of fate
Develops the ability to plan ahead and to anticipate your future needs
Gives ability to handle change and transformation with grace and dignity
Healing Energy, Guardian of the Earth by Day
Powerful & Mystical – A Leader
Gives ability to keep your feet on the ground and pay attention to earthly things.
Encourages you to develop your sense of inner hearing and to pay attention to your inner voice.
gives you the ability to know the wisdom of the ages – from the time before time
Intelligence & Leadership – Strong Sense of Family
Authentic Totems of American Indian Tribes
- Mohawks – Bear, wolf, and turtle.
- Oneidas – Bear, wolf, turtle.
- Onondagas – Bear, wolf, turtle, deer, beaver, eel, snipe.
- Cayugas – Bear, wolf, turtle, deer, beaver, eel, snipe, hawk.
- Senecas – Bear, wolf, turtle, deer, beaver, heron, snipe, hawk.
- Tuscaroras – Bear, gray wolf, yellow wolf, great turtle, little turtle, beaver, eel, snipe.
- Hurons or Wyandots – Big turtle, little turtle, mud turtle, wolf, bear, beaver, deer, porcupine, striped turtle, prairie turtle, snake, hawk.
Algonkin Tribes on the Atlantic
- Delaware’s or Lenapes – Wolf, bear, dog, opossum, turtle, little turtle, mud turtle, great turtle, yellow eel, turkey, crane, chicken.
- Mohicans – Wolf, turtle, turkey, bear, dog, opossum, yellow eel, crane, chicken
- Abenakis (Maine) – Wolf, wild cat (black), bear, snake, spotted animal, beaver, caribou, sturgeon, muskrat, pigeon, hawk, squirrel, spotted frog, crane, porcupine.
Mississippi Algonkin Tribes
- Pueblo Tribes
- Miami’s – Wolf, loon, eagle, buzzard, panther, turkey, raccoon, snow, sun, water.
- Sauks and Foxes – Wolf, bear, deer, elk, hawk, eagle, fish, buffalo, thunder, pine, fox, sea, sturgeon, big tree.
- Shawnees – Wolf, loon, bear, buzzard, panther, owl, turkey, deer, raccoon, turtle, snake, horse, rabbit.
- Menomonis – Bear, porcupine, turtle, crane, wolf, otter, sturgeon, sunfish, big thunder, golden eagle, fork-tail hawk, bald eagle, turkey-buzzard, winter hawk, red tail hawk, crow, raven, beaver, elk, pine squirrel, wolf, dog, deer, bald eagle, fish hawk, great heron, coot, marten, fisher.
- Ojibways – Crane, catfish, loon, bear, marten, reindeer, wolf, merman, pike, lynx, eagle, rattlesnake, moose, black duck or cormorant, goose, sucker, sturgeon, white fish, beaver, gull, hawk, mud turtle, snapping turtle, little turtle, snipe, duck, snake, muskrat, heron, hull-head or bull-pout, sparrow, hawk, water snake, forked tree, wildcat, otter, buffalo, birch-bark, white oak tree, grizzly bear, reindeer, pike.
- Seminoles – Wind, tiger or panther, otter, bird, deer, wolf, snake, alligator.
- Chickasaw – Wildcat, bird, panther, fish, deer, raccoon, squirrel, alligator, wolf, blackbird.
- Cherokees – Wolf, holly, acorn, deer, bird, long prairie.
- Hopi – Horn-flute, mountain sheep, deer, antelope, elk, seed grass, ant, corn, rain cloud, rainbow, lightning, agaves, rabbit-brush, duck, frog, tadpole, snake, puma, dove, cactus, marmot, skunk, raccoon, squash, crane, pigeon hawk, thistle, eagle, hawk, turkey, sun, star, chicken hawk, willow, parrot, cottonwood, macaw, corn, badger, butterfly, coyote, skeleton,hemlock, buck-grass, squash, yellow fox, gray fox, juniper, striped squirrel, lizard, spider, fir, oak, magpie, field mouse, porcupine, turkey buzzard.
- Zuni – Crane or pelican, evergreen oak, coyote, badger, antelope, sun, eagle, parrot-macaw, cotton-tail rabbit, tortoise, rouse, bear, maize plant, deer, turkey, toad or frog, rattle-snake, sunflower.
- Scattered Tribes of the Pueblos – Calabash, mountain lion, turquoise, granite, arrow, humming bird, blue bird, timber, gopher, pine, boulder goose.
- Mahaves – Moon, caterpillar, coyote, rain cloud, sun, beaver, mesquite.
- Tlingit – Raven, frog, goose, sea lion, owl, salmon, beaver, codfish, skate, wolf, eagle, bear, killer-whale, shark, auk, gull, sparrow-hawk, thunder-bird.
- Haidas – Raven clan, eagle, killer-whale, black bear, loon, woodpecker, thunder-bird, hawk, wolf, dogfish, devilfish, owl, land otter, grizzly bear, sea lion, mountain goat, rainbow.
- Eagle Clan – beaver, sculpin, frog, raven, dogfish, halibut, land otter, starfish, hummingbird, skate.
- Tsimshian – Raven, codfish, starfish, eagle, halibut, beaver, whale, wolf, crane, grizzly bear, bear, killer whale, dolphin, sun, moon, grouse.
- Omahas – Male elk and deer, red maize, bear, turtle or tortoise, bird, white crane, verdigris, or green clay, deer head, buffalo head, white clay, buffalo tail, reptiles, thunder, black shoulder, wolf.
- Poncas – Thunder, fire, wind-makers, wildcat, bald elk, earth, medicine, dark buffalo, osage.
- Iowa’s – Black bear, wolf, white wolf, black wolf, gray wolf, coyote, eagle, thunder-being, golden eagle, gray eagle, spotted eagle, bald eagle, elk, beaver, pigeon, raccoon, grouse, buffalo, rattlesnake, owl.
- Kansas or Kaw – Deer, black eagle, prairie wolf, tent, bear, duck, turtle, thunder, buffalo, elk, earth, white eagle, raccoon, osage, black bear, ghost, gray hawk.
- Osages – Sun, comet, buffalo bull, black bear, elk, swan, bald eagle, turtle, fish, pond-lily.
- Winnebagoes – Wolf, elk, bear, deer, buffalo, snake, eagle, thunder.
- Mandans – Wolf, bear, prairie chicken, good knife, eagle, flathead, high village.
- Crows – Prairie dog, skunk, lost lodges, bear’s paw, fish catchers, raven, antelope.
- Creek Indians – Wolf, bear, skunk, alligator, panther, mole, fish, hickory nut, beaver, snake, bear, deer, wind, fox, maize, salt, otter, bird, toad, raccoon, wildcat, buffalo.