Totem poles are monumental sculptures carved on poles, posts, or pillars with symbols or figures made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. The word totem is derived from the Algonquian (most likely Ojibwe) word odoodem [oˈtuːtɛm], "his kinship group". Totem poles are not religious objects, but they do communicate important aspects of native culture. Carvings of animals and other characters typically represent characters or events in a story. The carvings may symbolize or commemorate cultural beliefs that recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. The poles may also serve as functional architectural features, welcome signs for village visitors, mortuary vessels for the remains of deceased ancestors, or as a means to publicly ridicule someone. Given the complexity and symbolic meanings of totem pole carvings, their placement and importance lies in the observer's knowledge and connection to the meanings of the figures.
Totem pole carvings were likely preceded by a long history of decorative carving, with stylistic features borrowed from smaller prototypes. Eighteenth-century explorers documented the existence of decorated interior and exterior house posts prior to 1800; however, due to the lack of efficient carving tools, sufficient wealth, and leisure time to devote to the craft, the monumental poles placed in front of native homes along the Pacific Northwest coast probably did not appear in large numbers until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Trade and settlement initially led to the growth of totem pole carving, but governmental policies and practices of acculturation and assimilation sharply reduced totem pole production by the end of nineteenth century. Renewed interest from tourists, collectors, and scholars in the 1880s and 1890s helped document and collect the remaining totem poles, but nearly all totem pole making had ceased by 1901. Twentieth-century revivals of the craft, additional research, and continued support from the public have helped establish new interest in this regional artistic tradition.
Spirit Poles of Korea
Korean American Historical Society
Native American art history has developed over thousands of years and consists of several distinctive styles from the distinguishing cultures of diverse Indian tribes. From Navajo to Hopi to Plains Indians each tribe has a unique history, which consists of many types of Native American Indian arts including beadwork, jewelry, weaving, basketry, pottery, carvings, kachinas, masks, totem poles, drums, flutes, pipes, dolls and more.
Native American arts have an extremely deep connection with spirituality and Mother Nature. It’s a profoundly expressive art that has been a way of life for many Native Americans. Native American art history can be traced back to cave painting, stonework and earthenware thousands of years ago. Over the years the types of materials used by Native Americans has evolved from rocks and feathers to cloth, clay, turquoise, silver, glass and fabric; each piece of art reveals intricacies of the diverse indigenous people.
Native American art history is strongly associated with symbols that were often linked with nature. Important symbols in most Native American art history include the sun, moon, bears, eagles or people. Pendants and statues were often created to symbolize and honor Mother Nature. Everything Native Americans create is done with time and care so that even ordinary utensils are often considered pieces of art.
Tall wooden sculptures known as totem poles are one of the most elaborate forms of Native American art. Each pole represents generations of family members or spiritual story. A lot of totem poles would include characteristics of animals, considered spirit animals, standing as a symbol of Native American heritage.
One of the more popular forms of Native American art is jewelry. Rich in symbolism and used to adorn, protect and in some cases honor, Native American jewelry is one of the most sought after forms of Native American art. Known for their skills in carving intricate designs and patterns, often Native American inspiration came from the natural world. Most commonly used materials for Native American jewelry is silver, turquoise, onyx, copper, opal and brown stone.
Southwest Indian artists are best known for kachina dolls of the Hopi; sandpaintings of the Navajo; pottery, particularly by Pueblo Indian artists; woven blankets and rugs predominantly by the Navajos; and many different styles of fine basketry and jewelry particularly in silver and turquoise jewelry.
Over thousands of years Native American art history has evolved from cave drawing to ornate jewelry, basketry, pottery and blanket design. The next few pages will discuss Native American arts, Native American Indian art of the Southwest and Native American culture facts.