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This article relates to the Northwest Native American Indians Totem Pole Symbols and Meanings. What do the graphic carvings and coloring depicted on the totem pole mean? A totem pole depicts emblems of animals and mythological creatures that are believed to have spiritual significance and who watch over the families, clans, or tribes who adhere to the belief of Totemism. The Totem Pole symbolizes guardian spirits or helpers each of the animals, images and symbols have special and specific meanings. For additional information refer to Power Animals. Only six tribes of Northwest Indians create and construct the Totem Pole: the Haida, Tlingit, Bella Coola, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl and the West Coast tribe.
Totem Pole Symbols The figures carved on a Totem pole might include a person, animals, birds or insects and might also display mythological and legendary images, usually Animal Spirits, whose significance was their association with the lineage of the tribe. The totem pole is built in three sections and the position of figures on the Totem pole are also significant.
The bottom section of the Totem Pole is the most important as it displays the symbols and images in the most visible and prominent position. Totem poles are read from bottom to top.
The top section of the Totem Pole often display flamboyant portrayals of Mythical creatures and monsters such as the Thunderbird and the Haida tribe artists might often place three Watchmen with tall hats on top of their Totem Pole creations
Other mythical creatures such as a scaly double-headed serpent called Sisiutl, the thunderbird and a supernatural shape-shifting bird called Kolus might also be featured.
Identifying Totem Pole Symbols and Images The images carved on the Totem Pole were carved to represent human and animal faces rather than to look exactly like them. Each figure bore an identifying symbol. Erect ears on a Totem Pole figure distinguished an animal from a man. The killer whale had a protruding dorsal fin, and the eagle, a curved beak.
Pictures of Totem Pole Figures (note the different shapes & size of beaks)
Identifying Totem Pole Symbols and Images
Totem Pole People
Men and Women are represented fairly realistically. People can be depicted upright but more often in a crouching position. People are shown with erect ears and women are distinguished from men by a labret (lip ornament) in their lower lip.
Totem Pole Top Figures
The top figures often identify the tribe, clan or lineage such as the eagle or the raven
Totem Pole Land Animals
The eyes of land animals are carved as two curves enclosing a circle. Four legged animals are usually depicted in a crouching position. The bodies of most animals are facing the front.
Totem Pole Fish and Sea Mammals
The eyes of fish and some sea mammals are carved with round eyes
Totem Pole Birds
Birds are usually carved perched with their wings outstretched or folded at their sides. Their legs have large, clawed feet. Beaks horizontally protrude from the figure or carved tucked against the chest. All birds have eyebrows and have ears on the top of their heads.
Totem Pole Natural Phenomena
Images from nature including the sun, moon, stars and rainbows are also depicted
Totem Pole Wolf Symbols
The Wolf are carved with tall ears, a long sharp muzzle, elevated snout and lots of teeth
Totem Pole Eagle Symbols
The Eagle is distinguished by its short, curved beak
Totem Pole Beaver Symbols
The beaver is distinguished by its two protruding teeth and round nostrils. The beaver is often portrayed holding
Totem Pole Mountain Goat
The Mountain Goat is depicted with slender, sharp horns and cleft hoof with two toes
Totem Pole Killer Whale Symbols
The Killer Whale has two spines above the round eyes, two prominent dorsal fins, a large head and a mouth turned up at the corners. Often has spots painted on its back.
Totem Pole Shark Symbols
The Shark is depicted with gills slits as crescents and a crescent shaped mouth, turned down at the corners and filled with saw-like teeth
Totem Pole Frog Symbols
The Frog is portrayed as if seen from above.
Totem Pole Halibut Fish Symbols
The Halibut has a continuous fin and is depicted with both eyes on one side
Totem Pole Octopus Symbols
The Octopus is traditionally depicted with a bird like head, hooked bill, suction plates and tentacles
Totem Pole Bear Symbols
A realistic depiction of a bear but with large nostrils, paws, and fangs
Totem Pole Raven Symbols
The Raven is portrayed with a short, sharp, protruding beak
Totem Pole Insects
Various styles are used in Insect designs and are carved in a similar fashion to birds making their species difficult to distinguish
Identifying Supernatural Totem Pole Symbols and Images
Totem Pole Supernatural or mythical beings
These would often be a combination of both real and imaginary creatures - for example a wolf might be carved with wings
Totem Pole Thunderbird
Often seen at the top of the Totem Pole. It is a powerful spirit and depicted with great wings and curled feathers or horns on its head
Totem Pole Kolus
The Kolus is a supernatural bird that has straight feathers or horns on its head
Totem Pole Mawdzeks
The Mawdzeks, another mythical bird, resembling an eagle, with a short beak turned down and depicted with his wing wrapped in front of him.
Totem Pole Huxwhukw
The Huxwhukw, or the Cannibal Bird, is a crest of the Kwakiutl tribe. It is depicted with an extremely long chisel-shaped beak (with which it devours the brains of men)
Totem Pole Sisiutl
The Sisiutl is a scaly double-headed serpent. The Sisiutl is another crest of the Kwakiutl tribe and has magical powers to transform into many forms representing both good and evil. It is a snake like horizontal figure depicted with a profile head, teeth and a large curled tongue at each end of the serpent. In the middle of its body is a human head with horns.
Totem Pole Dzunukwa
The Dzunukwa is a grotesque female giant and always painted with black. She is depicted with deep eye sockets, half closed eyes, pursed lips and pendulous breasts.
Totem Pole Haida Watchmen
The Haida Watchmen wear tall hats and their figures are on the top of totem poles, that guard the house of the chief, from where they can keep watch over the village.
Identifying Totem Pole Symbols and Images
Totem Pole Symbols - Tribal Totems The totem pole symbols often used by the Northwest Indians included their tribal totems. Refer to Animism and Animal Totems for the meanings of many of their symbols
The totem pole symbols of the Tlingit tribe included the raven, frog, goose, sea lion, owl, salmon, beaver, codfish, skate, wolf, eagle, bear, killer-whale, shark, auk, gull, sparrow-hawk
The totem pole symbols of the Haida were the eagle, killer-whale, black bear, loon, woodpecker, thunderbird (mythical), hawk, wolf, dogfish, owl, otter, grizzly bear, sea lion, mountain goat
The totem pole symbols of the Tsimshian were the raven, codfish, starfish, eagle, halibut, beaver, whale, wolf, crane, grizzly bear, bear, killer whale, dolphin
The totem pole symbols of the other three tribes included the beaver, frog, raven, dogfish, halibut, land otter, starfish and hummingbird
Pictures and Videos of Native Americans Discover the vast selection of pictures which relate to the History of Native Americans and illustrate many decorations and tattoos used by American Indians. The pictures show the clothing, tattoos, war paint, weapons and decorations of various Native Indian tribes that can be used as a really useful educational history resource for kids and children of all ages and a means to study their interpretation. We have included pictures to accompany the main topic of this section - Native American Art. The videos enable fast access to the images, paintings and pictures together with information and many historical facts. All of the articles can be accessed via the Native Indian Tribes Index.