The word totem is often misused to refer to the poles depicting animals associated with Native American culture. Actually by totem, a term deriving from ototeman, we mean a natural or supernatural entity that takes on a symbolic meaning for a person or within a clan or tribe. The cult based on the presence of totems is called totemism and it is a religious practice of tribal origin.
Several native tribes of North America who adhered to this cult used to carve tree trunks and decorate them to depict overlapped totems, hence creating the so-called totem poles. These symbolized and/or commemorated cultural beliefs related to family legends, clan lineages or other important events.
Many think that the art of totem poles is a peculiarity of all Native Americans. The truth is that the origin behind the creation of these monumental sculptures is confined to a narrow strip of land covering the Pacific coastal areas of Northwest America. In particular, we are talking about British Columbia, in Canada, and the coastal areas of Washington and Alaska, in the United States. This false belief has also been fueled by the massive presence of totem poles throughout North America, where they are found in every shape and size, and also among souvenirs near native reserves and tourist spots, with the sole purpose of being sold. It happens very often, in fact, that totem poles have no correlation with the history and culture of the place where they are installed and sold.
Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass thought decided to shed some light on the origin of the totem poles in the 2010 book The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History, in which they explain to tourists that what they often see and shoot is nothing more than a form of art repackaged and repurposed specifically for them. Moreover, they also say that their realization is quite recent.
“(People) assume this is an ancient form of aboriginal art and that where you see these poles in Alaska, for example, there were always poles at that site in Alaska. The point is that neither of these things are true” she said during an interview. She is an art historian, director emerita of the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North and a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Nowadays totem poles can be found everywhere as decorative objects, but many people indigenous peoples of the Northwest coast of America are reclaiming the totem poles to go back serving their original function as markers of family ancestry and claims to the land.