The word totem comes from the Ojibwa word “ototeman.”  The grammatical root, ote signifies a brotherly relation, where ototeman translates “his totem.”  The belief in protective spirits within us is not specific to the Ojibwa, but can be found across many indigenous cultures worldwide.   Today, the word totem covers a broad spectrum to signify an animal, plant, or being with symbolic importance.  Books such as “Way of the Shaman” by Michael Harner and “Animal Speak” by Ted Andrews brought the concept of totem animals to a broader audience.  Spirit animals are now the focus of memes, T-Shirts, and popular online quizzes. 



A traditional totem pole is a hand carved monument created by Pacific Northwest Coastal tribes.  The poles represent family legends, heritage, and spiritually significant crest animals that reflect the lineage and events.  The poles share a story: Large cedar trees were carved in to tall, narrow freestanding poles that are erected during a ceremony, or potlatch.  Often, these poles are painted in bright vivid colors.  The western red cedar wood naturally resists decay and insect damage making it ideal for totem poles.  Even with the heartiest of materials, the damp climate and characteristics of wood make for a limited life expectancy.  Only a handful of totem poles over 150 years stand today.  Eventually, they will decay and become part of the earth and soil, to nurture the seeds of perhaps other western red cedars.   This life expectancy also means we do not have a clear timeline clearly marking the first totem poles.  We can only imagine what those first poles may have looked like or represented for the Pacific Northwest communities. 


The Art of Totem Carving Lives On


 A concern that the art of carving would fade away with the older generations lead to a rekindling of the art and tradition.

Shells, stone, and animal teeth were replaced with iron and steel. The knowledge and skills of the 5 tribes were passed on to carry the tradition. 

Totem pole carving has grown across the Indigenous regions, and inspires new generations of artists today

New artists bring new interpretations and perspective.   While some artists may try to capture the traditional patterns and shapes, others may take on new or modern twist, or "borrow" styles from other tribal communities as books, knowledge, and mentors may be more readily available.  Totem poles have shifted from traditional use as they are now featured in  museums as artwork for all to appreciate.

Can You Match these Totem Prints?