Haida Indian Totems - Ninstants
Location: Queen Charlotte Islands
British Columbia Canada
The Haida indians were the first
known inhabitants of the Queen
Charlottes. The now abondoned
Ninstant village is a world heritage
site and contain the worlds oldest
standing totems.
Note: The symbols may very from tribe to tribe or
researcher to researcher. The meaning provided on this
pamphlet are one example.
What purpose did totem poles serve for Pacific
Northwest Native people?
Totem poles are emblems that symbolized where
a person stood within a big family grouping-- not just
a mother, father, sister, brother, but within a whole
clan of relatives.
In a Native kinship system, people were
considered related:
by blood,
by experience
by war exploits
and by adoption.
Each clan identified very strongly with the crests
and figures carved on their totem pole.
The following are general references of Totem Pole
symbols. Interpretation of the symbols varies among the
Native Peoples.
Raven - The mercurial trickster of Northwest Coast Native
lore. Curious and mischievous, often misbehaving but never
Sea Turtle - This totem is representative of Mother Earth.
Thunderbird - A mythological bird known to manifest the
rolling of thunder while beating its wings and creating
lightening when blinking it's eyes. Known to kill whales.
Eagle - Intelligent and resourceful. He rules the sky and is
able to transform himself into a human.
Wolf - Very powerful totem who can help people that are
sick or in need.
Bear - A teacher symbol as it is believed that Bear taught
the People to catch salmon and pick berries.
Frog - Known for bringing wealth and is associated with
Copper Woman. In another myth, frog was held down in fire,
when it burst lava flowed and engulfed an entire village.
Otter - The otter is a mischievous creature that is also a
symbol of laughter, curiosity, grace, and empathy.
Salmon - The salmon symbolizes instinct, persistence, and
Owl - The owl is a very respected animal and is thought to
symbolize the souls of the departed.
Killer Whale - Whales are honored as strong and brave fish.
The mythology of the killer whale is that is will bring food and
assistance to a chief or other important person lying helpless
and/or wounded.
History of the
Totem Pole
to get
Alaska postcard about
Totem Raising
What about
in the old days?
One of the
responsibilities of
the totem's owner
was to keep the
carvers amused,
warm, fed and
happy during the
long carving
process. In
times past, if
the carvers felt
they were not
treated to
treatment, or if
they were not paid what they thought they were
owed, they might accidentally carve a figure
upside down. Maybe if their treatment was really
below par, they might carve the figure of the chief
stark naked. When this happened, the chief was
usually too embarrassed to raise the totem, so
there are no examples of naked-chief-totems that
we can see today. But we do hear stories. Today,
the practice of carving things upside down looks
so cute, that it's done fairly often. It's done on
Made of cedar, totems served many purposes. Each
figure represented an element in a story; together, the
poles recorded the history and legends of the tribes,
which had no written language. The figures on totem
poles are not gods to be worshipped; rather, they
represent certain traits or characteristics that the clan
considered itself to embody. They are often compared
to the emblems on a coat of arms or the Great Seal
of the United States.
Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest Coast
Types of Totem Poles
There are several types of totem poles. Genealogy
poles were erected in front of a home to identify the
owner’s clan and status. Memorial poles were raised in
honor of a deceased clan member. Mortuary poles
served the same purpose but included a compartment
for the ashes of the deceased. Shame poles were
carved to castigate a person who had wronged the
clan or village. Shame poles were taken down only
after the offending person had made appropriate
reparation. Other poles depicted myths or legends of
the clan or were raised in honor of important deeds or
Additionally, each totem symbol can be traced back
to a mystical clan-founding ancestor. Totem origins
are so far back in time that they are non-human.
For example, a person exhibiting a Wolf totem
believed one of their ancestors once lived with
supernatural Wolves, and received permission from
them when he returned, to use certain symbols.
Using a figure meant a person was: "descended
from ...." or had recently "encountered ..." or had
received "a gift from ..." a supernatural being.
Color and Design
Colors were limited by the availability of natural
pigments, with black the most common. It was
made by grinding soot, graphite, or charcoal and
mixing it with pulverized salmon eggs. Red, used
for secondary elements, came from red ochre, and
blue-green, used for highlighting, was made from
copper sulfide.
Common totemic figures include Raven (a symbol
of the creator), Eagle (who represents peace and
friendship), Killer Whale (a symbol of strength),
Thunderbird, Beaver, Bear, Wolf, and Frog.
Photograph of a totem pole
of Haida Indians from
Kitchikan, Alaska outside
of a lodge in Portland,
Oregon, ca.1900. The
totem pole stands in the
center of the image,
approximately 50 feet tall.
A native American in a
headdress and wrap
stands to the left, while
a man in a button-down
shirt and tie stands to the
right. A wooden lodge stand
behind them, with two
carved wooden fish hung
over the door. Forest is visible behind them. There are four
large, discernable totems comprising the pole.
A cultural meeting place and an historic site on the
grounds of the Royal BC Museum. The park was
created in 1941 to display monumental poles,
welcome figures and other First Nations carvings.