Tlingit mortuary and memorial totem poles

A conversation between Teresa DeWitt and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank in front of a Mortuary Pole, Tlingit origin, 19th century, from Village Island, 16 x 2 ft. (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska); and a Bear/Killer Whale Pole (memorial pole), Tlingit origin, 19th century, Village Island, 27 x 2 ft. (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska)

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Tlingit mortuary and memorial poles

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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. Memorial and mortuary poles, in particular, honor important members of the clan after their death. 
  • Totem poles reinforce the importance of oral and visual traditions among the Indigenous peoples and nations of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida. A good deal of individual clans’ history and broader cultural history was lost when European and Anglo-American newcomers, who began to arrive in the area in the 18th century, brought disease and misconceptions about the practices and traditions of the local Indigenous peoples and nations. Traders and colonizers destroyed or defaced totem poles incorrectly thought to be objects of religious worship.
  • In the early 1970s, the combined efforts of Native elders, the Alaska State Museum, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Forest Service, and the City of Ketchikan brought surviving 19th-century totem poles to the Totem Heritage Center. The totem poles specifically came from former Tlingit villages on Tongass Island and Village Island and from the Haida village of Old Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island. While traditionally totem poles would be left at the spot where they were originally raised, and allowed to deteriorate so the wood would return to the earth, the poles at the Totem Heritage Center are preserved and used to teach future generations about the cultural practices of their communities.

Go deeper

Learn about a Haida potlatch pole and clan crest pole

Learn 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

More to think about

Reflect further about the loss of cultural and family history due to outsider impact on the lives of Native people. Based on the example of the totem poles at the Totem Heritage Center and other contexts you may know of around the world, how does a culture sustain itself when misinformation, cultural bias, and external pressure to assimilate threaten it? What is the role and evidence of Indigenous resiliency in each context? What different perspectives do you have as a class about these risks and the actions that can mitigate or prevent them?

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.