Totem poles are sculptures carved from large trees, such as the Western Red Cedar. In North America, totem poles are part of the cultures of many indigenous peoples of Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Totem poles serve many purposes beyond their beauty, and their meanings are as varied as the cultures that make them.

Some totem poles represent stories or important events. On these poles, each figure on the totem represents part of a story. These totems are used as a way to record the history and legends of the tribes.

Figures on a totem pole are not gods to be worshipped. Instead, they represent traits and characteristics each clan or story embodies.

There are many other types of totem poles. Genealogy poles are erected in front of a family’s home to represent the owner’s clan or social status. Memorial poles are carved in honor of a deceased clan member. Mortuary poles are also raised in honor of the dead and include a small compartment for the ashes of the deceased.

Another interesting type of totem pole is the shame pole. Shame poles are carved to embarrass and ridicule someone who has done something wrong.

Shame poles are taken down once the person has made amends. A famous shame pole erected in Cordova, Alaska, included the face of an oil company businessman. It is said to represent the unpaid debt the oil company owes for damages caused by the oil spill in Valdez, Alaska.

Colors used to paint totem poles were limited. Artists relied on natural pigments. Black was the most common, made by grinding soot, graphite or charcoal. Red came from red ochre, a clay-like material. Blue-green was made from copper sulfide.

Common figures found on totem poles include the raven (a symbol of The Creator), the eagle (representing peace and friendship), the killer whale (a symbol of strength), the thunderbird, the beaver, the bear, the wolf and the frog.

Though the totem pole has been a part of history for decades, totem poles are still created today. Native carvers in the Northwest continue to carve totems as symbols of their cultural pride and clan kinship.

 

57 Join the Discussion

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  1. Hi, this is James from Mrs. Caplin’s class. Today I learned so many new things like totem poles showed a story about a tribe’s past. I thought they showed the tribe’s gods. I was so surprised by the vocabulary used and how many words I learned. In class, we are learning about Native Americans, so now I can describe what a totem pole is. When I was reading, I wondered about the first totem pole and which tribe made it and thought that you might know and wanted to ask you about it. My favorite vocabulary word was genealogy and found out that it meant something traced down from an ancestor. I thought that the video was cool how it showed all of the totem poles. I liked this wonder a lot.

    • We’re sure glad you liked this Wonder a lot, James! We’re not sure who carved the very first totem pole or which tribe made it, but we know that it must have been created a very long time ago! Thank you for sharing all the awesome things you learned by visiting this Wonder! :-)

  2. I think that this was a exquisite wonder of the day. I learned that totem poles tell stories or resemble important events. I also didn’t know that there are many different types of totem poles like the Genealogy, Memorial, Mortuary, and Shame totem poles. I am wondering who besides the oil company business man, has had a shame totem pole, and for what? I also didn’t know that a raven on a totem pole symbolizes the Creator, the eagle on a totem pole represents peace and friendship, and the killer whale on a totem pole represents strength. When I was looking at the Wonder Words to Know and Use, I saw the word indigenous. In our Scholastic News a few weeks ago about Cherokee kids trying to save their indigenous language, I learned that indigenous means native. I can connect to this wonder because in Social Studies we are doing Native Americans, so far we haven’t discussed totem poles but when we do I will have lots of background knowledge. Thank you for this fabulous wonder, I learned a lot.

    • WOW! You sure DID learn a lot about totem poles, Olivia! We think that is GREAT! We know your “MC” classmates will be excited when you share with them what you’ve learned today! :-)

  3. Hi, my name is Jack Triplett, and I am from Mrs. Caplin’s class. I never knew that there were so many different types of colors and shapes on a totem poles. I also didn’t know that different cultures have different types of totem poles. I thought that was very interesting. I learned that totem poles are originally from large trees. I also learned that they represent stories or very important events. What is the most important type of totem pole? Keep up with the fantastic wonders!

    • It’s true, Jack, totem poles mean different things to different cultures and tribes. Thank you for hanging out in Wonderopolis today and for letting us know you thought this Wonder was fantastic! :-)

  4. Wow! This was a phenomenal Wonder! I had no idea that all of the different symbols on the totem pole meant something different like that the eagle means peace and friendship. How did you find out all of this? Now I’m wondering, how many symbols or figures are on each totem pole? Also, I had no idea that all of the colors that they use on the totem poles were limited! Also, I completely thought that the symbols were made to worship the gods that they believe in. Now I know that they are made to honor people and to embarrass people who have shown disrespect and should be humiliated. I learned so much from this wonder! This was a great one!

    • We think your comment is a GREAT one, Jack! We’re glad you learned so many cool and interesting facts about totem poles by visiting this Wonder! :-)

  5. My name is Mukund from Mrs. Caplin’s class. I learned that totem poles are carved sculptures that are made from wood. I also learned that each symbol on a totem pole is part of a story. I could understand this wonder very well because we are learning about Native Americans in Social Studies. How many Native American clans or tribes use totem poles? I had to use context clues to figure out what clan meant. I think it means a Native American tribe. I learned that there are many animals on totem poles that include: Raven, Eagle, Killer Whale, Thunderbird, Beaver, Bear, Wolf, and Frog. I learned that there are totem poles and shame poles. Shame poles are carved when someone has done something wrong. I also learned to paint totem poles you must find natural pigments to paint with. How many colors were there back then? When did Native Americans start making totem poles and shame poles? I learned that there are many kinds of totem poles. How big was one clan or tribe of Native Americans? I learned totem poles represent traits and characteristics each clan or story embodies. I also learned that figures on totem poles are not gods to be worshiped. I hope I get to see a totem pole sometime soon. I really liked this wonder.

    • What a very well-written comment you left for us today, Mukund! We can tell you learned a LOT of new information about totem poles! We think it’s neat that you had some background knowledge about Native Americans before you explored this Wonder! :-)

  6. Dear Wonderopolis,
    We are learning about Native Americans in school for Social Studies. We read something about Native Americans using totem poles somewhere in the Northwest. In school, we made a hypothesis of what totem poles were and other “Have you ever wondered…” questions.
    I never knew that the totem pole had many interesting facts such as the totem pole represents part of story. I also did not know that the totem poles record history and legends of the tribe. Not using the totem poles for worshiping their god(s) was new and interesting to me. If the totem was not for worshiping their god(s) then what did? The thought of having more than one reason to make totem poles really got me hooked. Another interesting fact I learned was that the colors they could use were limited. I thought that the figure on the top being represented for something was pretty cool. This was a very excellent and interesting wonder.

  7. Hi, this is Eric from Mrs. Caplin’s class. I never knew that there was different kinds of poles. I thought they all carved the same pole with animals and people on them. I also didn’t know that each animal stands for something like the eagle stands for peace and friendship and the killer whale stands for strength. I wonder how many different types of animals they carved on their totem poles. I saw the word indigenous in the wonder words to know list, and I saw that word in our Scholastic News we read. I also didn’t know that colors on a totem pole are limited. I really liked this wonder and learned so much from it.

    • We think it’s AWESOME that you learned so much from this Wonder of the Day®, Eric! Thank you for sharing all the cool facts you now know about totem poles! :-)

  8. Hi, Wonderopolis. Thank you SO much for teaching me this. I thought the exact opposite of what totem poles are for. I thought that Indians made totem poles to worship them, but now I learned that they made them to represent characteristics. I also didn’t know that there where different kinds of totem poles like the shame totem pole. One time, I tried to make a totem pole with my pocket knife, but ended up cutting my self instead, because my blade was too dull. Anyways I was WONDERing how archeologists know what the totem poles are for and all that if they can’t talk to an Indian face-to-face? I was also WONDERing what type of tools the Indians used to carve those huge things. And the last thing is how do Indians get that high to carve the totem poles with out ladders. Well, once again thank you SO much for teaching me all this because I love to learn about it. You made my night. :)

    • OUCH! We’re sorry you hurt yourself when you tried to make your own totem pole, Alex! :-( Those were some GREAT questions you asked about totem poles! We’ll have to do a bit more WONDERing about them ourselves to learn the answers! :-)

  9. Wow, that was a MAGNIFICENT wonder. I liked in the video seeing all the different totem poles from all over showing and telling me that not all totem poles are alike and that not all totem poles are all animals or people, and, in fact, I saw a totem pole that was a animal and a human. If there are totem poles like all that, I wonder if they have some that show the weather like a sun? Before seeing this wonder, I always thought that totem poles where in a cold climate place because when I was little, I watched the movie Balto and there was a big totem pole (I always thought the faces were too scary for a kids movie so I would shut my eyes when that part came up- but then I was little!). But, after seeing the video and reading the wonder, I now know that totem poles can be anywhere. I thought that it was super duper cool that your wonder was about Native Americans, because in Social Studies, we’re talking about just that, so when I read the Wonder, it was a bit easier for me to understand some of the big words in it like indigenous, because we already discussed it in school.

    When I was reading this wonder, I found it just absolutely phenomenal that you knew and could explain what different symbols on the totem poles meant- like for example how you knew that the eagle represents peace and friendship. How do you know this stuff? You must do A LOT of research before making a wonder. I guess I knew that the Native Americans didn’t have paint just in a bucket or go to the local Wal-Mart to get it, but I never thought about how they had to use pigments from berries and charcoal and all their other natural resources, as well.
    Well you made me wonder. Now I’m going to have you wonder. I’m just wondering since you know almost everything. Do you know when and where the first totem pole was made?
    Thanks so much!
    I learned a lot, so thanks a lot!

    • We’re so glad to hear that you learned a lot by visiting this Wonder, Leah! We don’t know everything about every subject, but we like to WONDER just like you do! When we WONDER about something, or we get a suggestion for a new Wonder from a Wonder Friend, we do a lot of research in a lot of different places to find the most information we can. Then, we put it all together in one place…the Wonder of the Day®! :-)

  10. Hi, this is McKenna from Mrs. Caplin’s class. This Wonder was astonishing! I learned so many new, interesting facts about totem poles. Right now in social studies, we are learning about the Northwest Native Americans and the Native Americans of the Plains. In class, we found out that since there are more trees and wildlife in the Northwest, that the Indians will have more totem poles because of all the big trees and resources that they can use. Some of the things I learned are that totem poles symbolize stories or important events (I thought that it represented the object that Native Americans worship). The second thing I learned was that totem poles can represent anything from social statuses to death to shame. I was just WONDERing if when you are presented the pole of shame, would they put it in front of your house and let you keep it so you remain embarrassed of your sin? The third new fact that I learned was that not only do totem poles symbolize indigenous stories, but the figures on them give a different mood in the story. Tomorrow, when my class opens the wall for social studies, I will have a lot of background knowledge about how the Native Americans used their resources to construct totem poles and what the symbols mean on them. Lastly I have a few questions. What tribe created the first totem pole? Are there more than just four types of totem poles?, and how many cultures used totem poles to symbolize their important stories?

    • Those are all great questions you ask, McKenna! We will all have to WONDER some more about totem poles to find the answers to them! Thank you for letting us know that you learned so many interesting facts about totem poles by exploring this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

  11. Hi! This is Haley from Mrs. Caplin’s class!
    This wonder was phenomenal! I learned about totem poles at school in social studies, so I knew some of the extraordinary facts. I learned that each figure on the totem pole means something that represents their tribe. I think different Indian tribes used totem poles to record the history and legends of their tribe. It was interesting that the totem poles represent stories or valuable events. Context clues helped me comprehend the story, because I did not know the meaning of the word genealogy. Now I know it is the study of your heritage. I noticed in the video, all the sculptures had a eagle on their heads. Does that mean they were the leader? I also am wondering, if the people on the totem poles emotions on their faces have something to do with what it represents?
    This was an incredible wonder!!

    • We like the awesome words you used to describe this Wonder, Haley, especially “phenomenal” and “incredible!” Way to go for using context clues to understand parts of the Wonder that you didn’t understand! We’re super proud of you! :-)

  12. Hi, I’m Samia from Mrs.Caplin’s class. In this wonder, I learned there are many different types of totem poles such as genealogy poles, memorial poles and mortuary poles. I also learned that black was the most common color used on totem poles. I was wondering, are black, red and blue-green the only colors used on totem poles? If not, then what other colors are used on totem poles? Another interesting fact I learned was that some totem poles represent stories or important events. That’s very interesting. I was wondering, do you know any of the stories or important events? I already knew that totem poles represented things, but I had no idea what they represented. This wonder taught me that the raven was a symbol of The Creator, the eagle represented peace and friendship, and the killer whale is a symbol of strength.
    This wonder was really interesting and I liked it a lot.
    Thanks!

    • Hi, Samia! It sounds like you learned many new facts about totem poles by exploring this Wonder about them! We’ll have to WONDER a bit more before we can find out the answers! We think it’s super cool that you and your “MC” classmates explore Wonders that relate to what you are studying in school. You are lucky to have Mrs. Caplin as your teacher this year..she is WONDERful! :-)

  13. Wow! That is so cool! Now I can ask my parents “Do you know your genealogy?” and they would be clueless! So now, if I was mad at someone (and that sometimes happens) I can draw a shame pole and glue a picture of their face to the top. I had NO idea that cultures would make shame poles to ridicule someone. How many cultures made totem poles, anyway? All that I knew about totem poles is that they were really tall, tall poles! I used context clues to figure out “amend” had something to do with making up for a mistake. Go, Wonderopolis!

    • Go, Ryan, for using context clues to figure out what “amend” meant! We’re super proud of you for that! Thank you for leaving us such a detailed comment to let us know all the cool things you learned in Wonderopolis today! :-)

  14. Hi, Wonderopolis! I thought that this wonder was very phenomenal. I learned many new things, like the symbols or carvings on the totem poles are not about gods, instead they are about traits and characteristics. I also learned that the Native Americans make not only totem poles, but they also create shame poles to embarrass someone when they did something wrong. I think this is too bad that they did this. How many tribes create totem poles besides for the Indians in the Northwest, Alaska, North America, and Columbia? In school, we are learning about the Native American Indians, so I really connected to this wonder. I also learned that mortuary means a carved funeral pole by using context clues. Thanks so much for an awesome wonder!

    • Well, thank YOU so much for leaving us an awesome comment, Lynn! We like that you and your “MC” classmates did lots of extra WONDERing about totem poles and have asked us some great follow-up questions! We’re not sure of the answers to all of them yet, but we’ll try to do some more WONDERing soon to find them out! :-)

  15. Hi, this is Srikar from Mrs. Caplin’s class. I never knew that there were so many different totem poles like the Genealogy, Memorial, Mortuary, and Shame totem poles. I learned that totem poles tell stories or resemble important events. I saw the word indigenous in the text, and we did a Scholastic News about Cherokee kids trying to save there indigenous language. I also didn’t know that a raven on a totem pole symbolizes the Creator, the eagle on a totem pole represents peace and friendship, and the killer whale on a totem pole represents strength. How many total Shame Poles are there? This Wonder was amazing.

    • We’re so glad to learn that you thought this Wonder was amazing, Srikar! Thank you for letting us know that! All of these cool facts you learned about totem poles today are awesome! We really enjoy hearing from our Wonder Friends! :-)

  16. WOW!!! THIS WONDER IS INCREDIBLE!!! Hi, my name is Betty, and I am from Mrs. Caplin’s class. Today I learned so many new facts that I don’t even know what fact to start with. I NEVER new that totem poles represent traits and characteristics of each clan or story embodies. I also learned that totem poles don’t only represent culture of the Native Americans, they show meaning of family and deceased people. I WONDER how the totem pole carving started, in what year? The 1800s or 1700s, maybe you can help me out. In social studies, we are learning about Native Americans, and one time we were doing a little activity. It was about Southern Americans and Northern Americans. There were flash cards and we had to sort them by the tribes. There was one question about totem poles and I barely new what they were. Now, because of this phenomenal wonder, I have 1,000000000000000 facts in my brain. If we start talking about totem poles in social studies, I will have all this background knowledge in my head I will answer every single question. If I have time, I will try to do the the try it out! Thanks for this WONDER!

  17. Hi, I am Harshitha from Mrs. Caplin’s class.
    Today I learned many new facts about totem poles. We are also learning about the Native American Indians in social studies. It’s so interesting to learn about Native Americans. It’s also new for me. I learned many new vocabulary words from this phenomenal wonder and I can add the new words into my word study spiral. Before I saw this cool wonder, I didn’t know what a totem pole looks like and it looks cool. I also saw the man’s face on the eagle’s body. I saw some faces have a beak instead of a nose, and I think the beak looks like a eagle’s beak. Now I know that some Native Americans are great carvers. But, I still wonder that at the top of totem poles is always eagles carved. Is it like a tradition to carve the eagles on top? Thanks for letting me know about totem poles and I am going to learn more in my school and in a wonder.

    • Hi, Harshitha! Thanks so much for leaving us this great comment! We like that you and your “MC” classmates write down new vocabulary words in your word study spiral…there were LOTS of great words to learn in this Wonder! :-)

  18. This was a fantastic Wonder of the day that left me wanting to visit these places and see these amazing totem poles around the world. I think it is amazing that the people long ago could create such colorful and detailed sculptures. In our Scholastic News, we learned about the Cherokee people trying to preserve their indigenous language. Totem Poles are a way for other tribes to preserve their culture. I wonder why the animals on the totem pole are usually placed on top? I wonder what people of long ago used to carve the wood into a sculpture. In social studies class, we learned about the Alaskan Indians and how they used seals for floats. I wonder if these were also the same Indians that carve totem poles in Alaska.

    • That’s a LOT of extra WONDERing about totem poles, Wyatt! We’ll have to do some more WONDERing ourselves to see if we can learn even MORE about them, too! :-)

  19. Dear Wonderopolis,
    I really enjoyed this wonder. I knew that totem poles were wooden poles in which the Native Americans carved symbols and figures to represent their tribe or to represent a god or goddess. It also just happened to be that we are learning about Native Americans and there cultures in class. Even though I new a lot about totem poles, this wonder still taught me something. I never new that they used totem poles to shame people if they did something wrong or to tell a story. But I am still wondering…did all Native Americans use totem poles? If not, how many of them didn’t and how many did? What symbols were usually used on the totem poles? This wonder was very intriguing. I hope you can answer my questions. Bye!

    • Hello, Sara! Those are GREAT questions! We don’t know everything about totem poles…we WONDER about them, too! We try to find a lot of information about a specific Wonder’s topic and then share some of the best facts in the Wonder of the Day®! We think it would be AWESOME if you and your “MC” classmates did some extra WONDER exploring about some of your awesome questions and then shared what you found out! You could help all of your Wonder Friends (including us here in Wonderopolis) learn some new things, too! :-)

  20. WOW! That was a great wonder! I learned so much about totem poles! One fact I learned was that they usually honor the dead. I also learned that they can tell stories. It’s so cool that one big piece of wood can resemble all these different interesting things! The video was especially cool because I learned about the designs that are common for totem poles! The designs are very interesting, like the one where it shows a man holding another man. I also really liked the super tall one. I learned lots of new words today and lots of new facts. Thanks for the wonder!

    • We’re glad you liked this Wonder about totem poles, Colin, and that you thought the video was especially cool! It’s AWESOME that you learned many new words and facts, too…that’s what WONDERing is all about! :-)

  21. Hi, I am Matthew from Mrs. Caplin’s class. I thought that this wonder was interesting. I did not know that most totem poles were made of Western Red Cedar trees. I also learned about all the different kinds of faces on the totem poles, like the creators face and the Killer Whale, which represents strength in the tribe. Also, thunderbird, beaver, bear, wolf and also the frog. It’s interesting how each totem pole told a different story about their tribe. I also did not know that there was such thing as a shame pole and it was used to embarras or to make that person feel bad after they had done something wrong. I’m also wondering how the Indians carved into the totem poles. Also do you know how tall the tallest Totem Pole is? I also learned that totem poles are another way to record their history in that tribe. Also, I learned that the different tribes would have different colors for the totem poles, depending where they live.

    • Hi, Matthew! WOW! You sure learned a LOT about totem poles by exploring this Wonder of the Day®! We liked your question about the tallest totem pole. Many cities in North America claim to have the tallest totem pole. Here are a few we found when we WONDERed a little more about your question:

      Alert Bay, British Columbia — They claim to have a totem pole that’s 173 feet tall
      Kalama, Washington — They claim to have a totem pole that’s 140 feet tall
      Kake, Alaska — They claim to have a totem pole that’s 137.5 feet tall
      Victoria, British Columbia — They claim to have a totem pole that’s 127.5 feet tall
      Vancouver, British Columbia — They claim to have a totem pole that’s 100 feet tall

      We think it would be fun to find out how all these super tall totem poles got carved…and who carved them! Thanks for being a great Wonder Friend! :-)

  22. As I sit here tonight at home and read my class comments, I once again am so pleased with their new knowledge, transfer into their word study and writing and especially the extension of the school day.

    We will accept the challenge: We think it would be AWESOME if you and your “MC” classmates did some extra WONDER exploring about some of your awesome questions and then shared what you found out! You could help all of your Wonder Friends (including us here in Wonderopolis) learn some new things, too!

    I am positive some of “MC” students will be able answer the questions perhaps we can write a class blog post on my blog. Thanks from the teacher for reading and writing such marvelous comments-it makes all the learning worth while!!

    • We agree, Mrs. Caplin…the “MC” student comments were MARVELOUS tonight! We can tell that each student explored the totem pole Wonder with excitement and a quest for more knowledge! They sure did learn a LOT! Thank you for inspiring WONDER in your students! :-)

  23. Wow! This was a wonderful wonder! I learned sooo much, including the many uses of totem poles. My brother was very surprised when I told him that I was learning about Native Americans and their culture of making totem poles. I did not know that the symbol of an eagle on a totem pole means peace. Do you know if they ever carved dogs on their poles? It was great to learn about the Native Americans, because in class, we are also learning about them, their cultures, and resources. Thank you for posting this wonder, it was fun to learn about this culture. Great job!

    • Thanks so much for letting us know we did a great job on this Wonder, Jillian! We think it is AWESOME that you shared what you have learned about Native Americans and totem poles with your brother! It is so great that your family learns together by visiting Wonderopolis, just like you and your “MC” classmates do! :-)

    • We’re so happy you learned something new about totem poles, Zoe! It’s great that you shared your comment with us– we love when Wonder Friends stop by to say hello! Thanks! :)

    • Hi there, Bob! We’re so glad you’re WONDERing about totem poles with us– how cool that you’ve learned something new! Nice work! :)

  24. I learned soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • HOORAY for you, Wonder Friend Sally! We are glad to know that you have learned all about the totem pole and its significance! How WONDERful! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is a totem pole?
  • Why do some cultures create totem poles?
  • What do some of the symbols commonly found on totem poles mean?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Have you ever thought about making your very own totem pole? This activity will teach you how.

Before you begin, think about what type of totem pole you would like to create. Perhaps you could make a totem pole that tells a story about your family.

Think about the characteristics and qualities that represent each person in your family. What animal embodies each of those qualities?

If you prefer, you can paint the faces of each family member on the totem pole. Don’t forget to include family pets!

 

Still Wondering

Can’t get enough of Native American culture? Visit ArtsEdge.org to watch the Native Pride Dancers demonstrate the traditional eagle, fancy, grass and hoop dances.

 

Wonder Categories/Tags

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