Tlingit mortuary and memorial totem poles

Learn about two types of totem poles from the Tlingit people of the Pacific Northwest Coast that memorialize individuals who have passed.

Mortuary Pole, Tlingit origin, 19th century, from Village Island, 16 x 2 feet (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska); and a Bear/Killer Whale Pole (memorial pole), Tlingit origin, 19th century, Village Island, 27 x 2 feet (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska). Speakers: Teresa DeWitt and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:06] We’re here at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, standing in front of a mortuary totem pole of the Tongass people.

Teresa DeWitt: [0:13] The totem pole is the oldest that we have in our collection that comes from the Tongass tribe. This pole is estimated to be about 200 years old and possibly older.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:21] Let’s unpack this term totem pole.

Teresa: [0:24] So when you see the totem poles that are in the building here or outside, what they are is great reminders — of stories, of people, of clan events that happened decades ago, or maybe in this past ten years, if it’s a current pole. Then we could find out the story and then we’ll better understand how the pole is designed and what it represents.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:43] That importance of oral tradition in connection to the pole that we’re looking at.

Teresa: [0:48] With all that happened when the newcomers came here, there was a lot of change and a lot of suppression of our Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian culture. Unfortunately, throughout the change of assimilation of our people here, there was some loss of stories and a loss of some precious things important to us. And unfortunately with this pole, there was quite a bit that was lost.

[1:09] There’s four things that help us identify more about this pole. When you look at the face, you could tell it’s a human face in the way the body is shaped. On the top hand there, you see a club. We don’t know if it’s a fishing club or if it’s a battle club.

[1:24] Below it, you see a shape that looks like a pear, and we know that’s a sculpin fish. There’s a fourth thing that we’ll notice around the back of the pole where it’s hollowed out. When you see a totem pole that has hollowed out, we know it’s a mortuary pole.

[1:38] When somebody that was very highly respected within the clan passed away, sometimes they would have a totem pole raised to memorialize the individual. They would put their remains, their cremations, inside of a bentwood box normally.

[1:51] That space that’s hollowed out is where the bentwood box would go with the remains in it. It’s a mortuary pole [in] comparison to a memorial pole. You could have a memorial pole up to honor somebody that passed away, but the difference is a mortuary pole would have that hollowed-out part.

[2:05] You’re still memorializing somebody that passed away, but the difference is you have the remains inside of the pole. Unfortunately, when they brought this pole from its original village where it stood, there was no remains inside of there.

[2:16] So we know four things. That’s a mortuary pole, it’s a human figure on there, and it has a club in its upper hand and a sculpin in its lower hand. Now, what we don’t know about this pole, what clan they came from, how tall the pole was, if there was any clan crests on top.

[2:31] There is a small remnant on top of the head of the human figure. We don’t know if that was one time a mink, a bear, or another figure. Maybe it was a clan hat that was placed on top of the human figure. All we know is what we see. So unfortunately, this is one of the stories that was lost but fortunate enough we have the totem pole here.

[2:49] One of the big decisions is when the newcomers came up that they seen these villages that was unoccupied at the time (to them). They automatically thought it was abandoned, unfortunately, and they had misconceptions of the pole.

[3:03] So there’s a lot of poles that was being destroyed when the newcomers came up here out of disrespect and out of lack of knowledge of where they were at and the people and the surroundings around them.

[3:13] When this all was going on, they were able to retrieve some of the poles from the original villages and bring them here. So we’re excited enough to have these totem poles because it was a big decision to bring them because traditionally when a totem pole is raised, that would be the expectancy of the pole. We wouldn’t move it, we wouldn’t transplant it anywhere else normally.

[3:33] Once the totem pole is raised, it would stay there until it started to deteriorate, or if it would fall down on its own, or if it would cause harm possibly if it started leaning too much, that would be the only time the men of the village would take the pole, and let it come down and then put it somewhere by the woods and they will let it go back to the earth to have its full cycle.

[3:52] So when they brought it here to the center and they created the center, it was a big step but it was a great step, because the people nowadays could look at these and they could cherish more about their culture, their history, continue to carry it on, even if it’s just one story or one explanation of a pole for the younger generation. Then it’s kept and preserved.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:09] I just want to look more closely at the figure that we’re seeing here. You mentioned we’re able to identify this as a human because of the high cheekbones, and the shape of the eyes, and the wide mouth.

Teresa: [4:21] Between the characteristics of the human face, the arms, the hands, and the legs, that’s how we can tell it’s a human. Plus, it’s very oblong and it’s standing up. Unfortunately, you can’t see the feet on this pole here in front of us because it’s deteriorated away. But it’s definitely the shape of the legs is one of the great indicators.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:38] At one point this pole would have been painted. And so there’s no longer any surviving paint on this particular pole. I want to go back to what you were saying earlier about the newcomers coming to this area and misunderstanding these poles.

Teresa: [4:49] Well, when the newcomers came up here, there’s a lot of misconceptions that our people of this area worshiped the poles and that they were coming from a religious standing point. The misconceptions caused them to burn the poles entirely or cut them down and destroy them. And unfortunately there is even newcomers that came up and used the poles as target practices.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:09] While we don’t know which clan owned this particular pole, there is another pole here in the Totem Heritage Center where we are able to identify who owned the pole.

Teresa: [5:19] The pole directly behind is a pole that has two figures on there. At the very top is a solid figure that’s attached to the totem pole. The figure that’s looking down at us has a very strong jawline. You can see the teeth and the nose, the eyes at the very top of the head, and at one time there were ears there. Unfortunately, it deteriorated off.

[5:40] That is actually a bear that’s looking down at us, and it has the claws underneath the jawline. If we go behind the totem pole, we can look at the figure on top and there’s no tail, so we know it’s a bear.

[5:52] Then, if you look down below the jawline, you can see the human face, and you can compare it to the human face on the pole in front of it. And you can see that characteristics of the cheekbones, the nose, the shape of the eye, and the oval mouth, that face actually sits on the tail of a killer whale.

[6:07] As you go down below the face, you can see the hollowed-out part that one time was a dorsal fin sticking out of the pole. Right on each side of the dorsal fin you can see the side fins of the killer whale, but if you keep going down, you can see the teeth of the killer whale on each side of the pole.

[6:24] If you look at the top of the pole, it’s much wider. Then as you go down to the bottom of the pole, it’s more narrow. That helps give the effect of the killer whale diving downwards into the water. So we know this one belonged to a clan that claimed the killer whale and the bear as part of their clan crests.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:41] I feel very honored to be here today and to learn about these two poles.

[6:45] [music]

Terms to know:

  • Tlingit
  • Totem pole
  • Tongass tribe
  • memorial vs. mortuary
  • Northwest Coastal peoples (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian)
  • bentwood box
  • clan crest

Cite this page as: Teresa DeWitt, Totem Heritage Center Museum Attendant and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Tlingit mortuary and memorial totem poles," in Smarthistory, October 31, 2021, accessed June 18, 2024,