Haida Totem Pole, from Old Kasaan

A 19th-century totem pole from Old Kasaan village of the Haida helps us to understand the meaning and function of clan crests.

Haida Totem Pole, 19th century, from Old Kasaan, Alaska (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska). Speakers: Teresa DeWitt and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank

Terms to know:

  • clan crest
  • totem pole
  • Northwest Coastal peoples (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian)
  • Thunderbird
  • bentwood box
  • Chilkat weaving

Additional resources

Learn more about the Totem Heritage Center

Read more about totem poles from The Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University

Learn about the Northwest Coast Village Project

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:06] We’re here at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska, and we’re looking at a very tall totem pole in the center of five poles.

Teresa DeWitt: [0:14] The pole we’re looking at is sharing a certain clan’s history. When you look at a pole, you can see the different clan crests and the different figures of humans and animals.

[0:24] What a clan crest for us amongst our Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people, it’s like a last name. You have a family that we follow, and it’s always matrilineal. From your mother’s side is where you claim your clan crest from. We always acknowledge our father’s people and who you’re the child of, but we always follow the mother’s side.

[0:43] Each family has a set of clan crests that they claim, and it’s just not saying that it’s theirs, but it’s sharing and reminding them of their history of their ancestors. Each animal crest that people put on their regalia, on their jewelry, on their hats when they dance, or on a totem pole has a very special story that goes with it and how their ancestors interacted with that particular animal.

[1:07] If you look at this pole here, you see a combination of animals that are on the pole. Each family has up to five or six clan crests that the family claims. That’s why I tell people it’s like a hyphenation. You don’t just claim one, but you have a variety of clan crests that you claim because of your history through your mother’s side.

[1:26] If you look at the very top of the pole, you see a bird. We could tell it’s either a Thunderbird or an eagle by the short, hooked beak. Now, if it was straight and pointy, then it would be a raven.

[1:38] Right below the claws of the bird, you see that very particular face that has that wide eyes, that special nose, and a very wide mouth that is horizontal. That there is actually a frog. It reasserts that it’s a frog design by the hands that are hanging on to the bentwood box.

[1:55] We think of ourselves as we hang on to a box that our joints and our human fingers are straight. They don’t curve. If you look at the hands that’s hanging on to the bentwood box, that the fingers are curved, it re-emphasizes that it’s a frog hanging on to the box.

[2:11] Right below the box, you see that tall figure, which we could tell it’s a beaver by its ears that are close-set on top of the head, that very distinguished nose. And you’ve got the two front teeth and the eyes.

[2:23] The animal crests all have different eyes that vary from one animal to another. Right below the chin, you can see the hands that are hanging on to the chew stick. Right below the chew stick, you see remnants of a baby beaver hanging on to the cross-hatched tail of the beaver.

[2:38] When we look at it, we could tell what family this is representing by the combination of the clan crest that’s on display on the pole.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:46] I want to go back to something that you mentioned earlier. You noted that the frog is holding a bentwood box. Let’s elaborate on what that is.

Teresa: [2:55] When you see this on a totem pole, I was told that it’s representing a sense of wealth that the clan has. We don’t think of wealth as in money or we got a huge house or a car like we think of nowadays.

[3:08] Traditionally, when we think of wealth, we think of unity. We think of the skill that we have. If you’re wealthy, maybe you might have three or four Chilkat weavers in your family, in your clan, or you might have three or four totem-pole carvers and you have the unity of your clan members working together to complete different cultural events.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:27] I’m really struck by the different ways that the carver has accentuated features for the different crests here. Look at the eyes of the frog, the deeper carving to give the sense that the eyes are inset like you might see on an actual frog, and then with the shallower carving to differentiate parts of the mouth or the teeth.

[3:45] It really gives you this three-dimensional quality that would have been picked out with paint at one point to accentuate these features further.

Teresa: [3:52] When you see a pole like this, where it has the clan crest, and when we raised the poles long time ago, one of the common things that you would notice is that normally you would see all the totem poles facing the water. It would help identify what clans live or interacted with the village area that you’re in.

[4:09] The idea is when you go by a village in a canoe, you can look at the shoreline, you can look at the houses and the totem poles, and you can see the different clan crests. If you look at a totem pole like this and you see those three figures, then you know what clan is involved or lived in this area, that’s interacted with them.

[4:27] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Teresa DeWitt, Totem Heritage Center Museum Attendant, "Haida Totem Pole, from Old Kasaan," in Smarthistory, August 12, 2021, accessed April 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/haida-totem-pole-from-old-kasaan/.