Carving Culture on the Northwest Coast: The Totem Pole

Located at Brown University's Rockefeller Library, 10 Prospect St, Providence. See the Library's website for hours.

This exhibit was curated by Emily Button (doctoral candidate, Department of Anthropolog), and Jonathan Olly (doctoral candidate, Department of American Civilization) and was installed in March 2012.

Indigenous artists from many cultures along the northern Pacific coast of British Columbia and Alaska carve monumental wooden sculptures that feature stylized carvings of animals and people important in origin myths and family histories. Now popularly known as totem poles, these traditionally served as structural elements within and outside prominent houses, as poles commemorating or memorializing individuals, containers for remains, and grave markers.

In the late eighteenth century, Northwest Coast artists began making art for trade with westerners. They met the demand for portable souvenirs by reproducing the imagery of traditional memorial poles in wooden miniatures, and also adapting them to non-traditional materials, such as stone. Yet while tourists and museums building ethnographic collections scrambled for Northwest Coast artifacts, Canada and the U.S. enacted policies banning the ceremonies for which people originally created totem poles. Many Native American artists ceased monumental carving, but continued to make artistic miniatures for trade.

Even before these bans were lifted in the mid-twentieth century, a resurgence of interest in totem poles among Native artists, scholars, and the public led to a revival of the form. Today, indigenous artists create full size and miniature poles for ceremonial use and sale to museums, art galleries, and tourists. According to these artists, “real” totem poles - regardless of size - are those made by master carvers and their trained apprentices who follow the artistic grammar that continues to give them meaning.