How to Make a Totem Pole

Tlingit Totem PoleThunderbird TotemTotem Pole Victoria Park


Discover facts and information about the artwork of Native American Indians and the authentic, traditional methods they used and How to make a Totem Pole

  • How to make a Totem Pole
  • The Totem Pole and Northwest Native American Indians
  • How to make a Totem Pole - types of trees
  • Creating a Totem Pole - How to make a Totem Pole
  • Step by step guide on How to make a Totem Pole
  • Interesting facts and information about the ancient stone tools used and How to make a Totem Pole
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How to make a Totem Pole
Totem poles were time consuming to make requiring significant manpower in their construction and erection. Commissioning an artist to make a Totem Pole was an expensive undertaking. Totem poles were a sign of affluence and a display of wealth. The Northwest Indians belief system included Totemism and the decision to construct and raise a totem pole was a serious matter and subject to rituals and ceremonies. The chart on this page describes the procedure adopted by Northwest Indians and how to make a totem pole.

How to make a Totem Pole - Types of Trees
The types of trees used to create Totem Pole by the Northwest Native Indians were the red and yellow cedar trees. 

  • Cedar trees are tall with large diameters
  • They have fewer branches than other trees native to the Northwest Pacific Coast
  • Their needles are very flat and soft unlike the sharp needles of many other trees
  • The soft wood of a cedar tree has a straight grain and is easy to carve
  • They are the least prone to decay and rotting & have a lifespan of about one hundred years

How to make a Totem Pole - Designs
Totem poles are carved and painted with symbols and totems or figures such as animals, that represent clans or families and relates to their beliefs. The designs and symbols on a Totem Pole are complex and tell a story. Every animal depicted on a Pole and every color had a special characteristic, meaning and significance. The position of figures on the pole were also significant. Refer to Totem Pole Art and Design for additional facts and information about the design of Totem Poles and their symbolism.

Totem Pole

 

How to make a Totem Pole
The following chart details a step-by-step guide to the process adopted by Northwest Native Indians when creating Totem Poles. A similar process may be followed when undertaking a school project on how to make a Totem Pole.

How to make a Totem Pole

 
How to make a Totem Pole Stage 1

Planning


A meeting with the artist, carvers and helpers to plan the style and design of the Totem Pole and the symbols to be used and created. The size and dimensions of the Totem Pole would also be established.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 2Creating a model

The artist would create a small model reflecting the design of the totem pole and the position of the carvings and symbols required
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 3Locating the tree

The tree was the main material required. A red cedar tree of the correct height and size would be sourced in the forest. The tree trunk also needed to be straight with a minimum amount of knots or imperfections.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 4Cutting down the cedar tree

The cedar tree would be cut down, branches removed, and the helpers would carry the log to the house of the artist where the Totem Pole would be made. Sometimes high strong branches were left intact to play a part in the design, such as for the beaks of images.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 5Positioning the tree

The tree would be laid on its side as the totem pole would carved lying down where the carver could easily reach all parts of the log.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 6Preparing the Tree

The outer layer of bark would be stripped from the tree and the tree trunk would be smoothed by the helpers and carvers, taking instructions from the artist.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 7Sections Marked

The Totem Pole was designed and carved in 3 sections - the bottom, middle and top sections would each be marked. The bottom section required the most attention and importance as this would be closely viewed by observers.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 8Creating an outline of the design
 

Each design element would be etched on to the wood by the artist ensuring the correct placing and proportions of each of the elements
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 9Creating an outline of the design
 

Each design element would be etched on to the wood by the artist ensuring the correct placing and proportions of each of the elements
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 10First Cuts

The first rough cuts were chopped into the tree trunk and notches made  indicating the design elements of the totem pole
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 11Bottom Section Carved

The bottom section is carefully carved with its symbols and figures and flattened where necessary. The artist would pay close attention to the grain and the coloration of the wood to capture the sense of life and movement in the carving.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 12Middle Section

The artist would often delegate some of the middle section carvings to an apprentice.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 13Top Section

The planning of the top section might include the inclusion of elements such as wings and these would have to be securely attached to the main trunk. The Haida tribe often placed three Watchmen on top of their totems
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 14Painting

Once the carvings on the Totem Pole were completed they were smoothed down ready for painting. Like the images, each color had a specific meaning to the Northwest Indians. Some totem poles were painted on the ground, whilst others were painted after they were erected.
 

 
 How to make a Totem Pole Stage 15Raising Ceremonies

The completed Totem Pole would be erected accompanied by rituals such as  Totem Pole Raising ceremonies, funeral ceremonies and Spiritual Healing ritual.
 

 

How to make a Totem Pole

How to make a Totem Pole - Ancient Stone Tools
The Pacific Northwest Indians used tools made of flint, bone, shell, slate, antlers and beaver teeth for making totem poles. After the arrival of Europeans brought new, sharper tools, totem carving became more widespread and elaborate. The ancient Stone Tools used to carve and make totem poles included:

  • The Adze, which had a curved blade and used like a chisel to work wood. An adze was used to gouge out large sections of wood to form the design of the Totem pole

    Adze Tool

  • Knives - Various sizes of single and double edge knives to make a totem pole. The smaller the knife, the more control the carver had over the details of his design. Sharpening stones or whetstones were used as tools to  are used to grind and hone the edges of knives

Flint Flake Knife

  • Veiners and Gougers. Gougers are chisels with a rounded, trough-like blades to make grooves or holes. Veiners are "deep" gougers and can be inserted in the wood and rotated to make a circular hole

  • Bone and stone tools to crush the pigments used to make the paints for the totem poles

  • Receptacles to mix and contain the paints and pigments

  • Brushes to apply the paint made of animal hair and plant fibers

How to make a Totem Pole

  • How to make a Totem Pole
  • Materials used to create Totem Pole
  • Step by step guide
  • Stages of creation and design
  • How to make a Totem Pole
  • Native American Indian art and culture

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.

How to make a Totem Pole - Carvings - Artists - Native American Indian - Northwest Indians - Facts - Info - Information - Materials - Authentic - Traditional - Info - Information - Northwest Indians - Ideas - Paintings - Images - Artists - Northwest Indians - Indian - Facts - Info - Information - Materials - Northwest Indians - Carvings - Artists - Native American Indian - Northwest Indians - Facts - Info - Information - Materials - Authentic - Traditional - How to make a Totem Pole - Written By Linda Alchin