Haida potlatch pole

A conversation between Teresa DeWitt and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank in front of a Haida potlatch pole, 19th century, from the village of Old Kasaan, exact dimensions unknown (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska)

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Key points

  • The Indigenous peoples and nations of southeast Alaska and the coasts of British Columbia and Washington State have long practiced the art of creating and erecting totem poles. The poles are carved from the logs of giant local cedar trees and then painted. Different types of totem poles include clan crest poles, mortuary or memorial poles, potlatch poles, and shame poles (and sometimes these overlap). Each serves a different purpose in the community. 
  • No matter the type, totem poles convey the history and status of the clans, or matrilineal families, that create them. For the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida, all clans are members of one of a number of moieties, or groups within their community. Each moiety is represented by an animal such as the raven, eagle or wolf, and is indicated by the carving of that animal on a totem pole. Humans, animals, and supernatural beings are also carved on poles as crests; the particular combination of crests on a pole is unique to each clan. Crests reflect the stories of the clan ancestors’ interactions with the beings depicted, and remind family members about their heritage. Clan crests can be included on multiple types of totem poles. 
  • Potlatch poles are made on the occasion of a potlatch, a multi-day gathering in celebration or recognition of major societal events, including the death of a prominent clan member. A potlatch requires a few years of preparation by the host clan. Central to the event is the act of gift-gifting from the host clan to their guests (who are of the opposite clans in the community), a demonstration of the hosting clan’s wealth in both materials and skills. It is believed that the rings on this totem pole represent the number of potlatches held by the host clan.
  • Potlatches were banned from the late 19th century through the early-to-mid 20th century in both the U.S. and Canada, as a result of European and Anglo-American newcomers’ misconceptions about the practices and traditions of the local Indigenous peoples and nations. Today, however, potlatches are once again openly held by communities in southeast Alaska and the coasts of British Columbia and Washington State.
  • The word potlatch is from the Chinook Jargon language, and has come to be used more broadly to describe ceremonial gatherings throughout the Northwest Coast region. Each group or nation, however, has its own term for these events and may prefer to use that term rather than potlatch. The Haida word is wáahlaal. The Tlingit word is ku.éex. And, the Tsimshian word is loolgit.

Go deeper

Learn more about the Totem Heritage Center

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

Learn about a Haida clan crest totem pole and Tlingit mortuary and memorial poles, which are among a group of 19th-century Tlingit and Haida totem poles that were transferred to the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan in the 1970s

Read more about the history of the potlatch among the peoples and nations of the Northwest Coast region:

More to think about

Potlatches reinforce values held by many of the Indigenous peoples and nations of the Northwest Coast region, including the importance of balance and reciprocity in one’s life and the broader culture. Are there events in your family, community, or culture that promote balance and reciprocity? Describe those events and any related visual or symbolic manifestations of these values. As a group, discuss your ideas about the importance of these qualities in society today. Are there other artists or artistic practices that reflect these values in ways that stand out to you? 

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.