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American Indian Totem Poles

This page is about Native American totem pole carving. If you're looking for information about totem animals and their meanings instead, please click here: Native American Animal Totems.

Totem poles are an ancient tradition of the Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast--Washington state in the USA, British Columbia in Canada--and some of the Athabaskan tribes of southern Alaska. Contrary to popular belief, the Southwest Indians, Plains Indians, and Inuit never built totem poles (there are no trees that size in the Sonoran desert or the Arctic tundra!) Now and then, though, you will hear an anthropologist claim that Native American tribes did not make totem poles at all before Europeans came to the New World. Since Native American totems are made out of wood, which decays over time, there is no way to prove to anthropologists that this assertion is false, but the oral histories of Northwest Indians and their neighbors are unanimous about the totem pole existing in those cultures long before European arrival, and the form and design of Northwest totem poles are so stylized and distinctive it would be hard to believe they sprang up recently. Totem poles have definitely grown in size since the acquisition of European woodcarving tools, though. The totem poles in Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and other Northwest Coast folklore were carried by men or stood inside a room. Neither was possible for the majestic totem poles created during the 1800's, which were made of single pieces of cedar wood up to forty feet high.



Today, both short and tall totem poles are still enthusiastically made by Northwestern and Alaskan Indian artists, and it is possible to purchase one-- for a price. This is probably the single most expensive native art form there is, no surprise given the cost of a full-grown cedar tree and the amount of hand-carving and painting required to make a totem pole. I hate to put things in purely financial terms, but frankly, if you find a large totem pole being sold for less than $500 a foot, it is probably not hand-carved, not made by a native artist, and/or not carved from a single tree trunk. Even imitation totems are pricy, and spending $2000 on a cheaply made fake is in many ways less affordable than spending $8000 on a genuine artwork. If you're looking for something less expensive, why not visit our Native American sculptures page instead, where there are some nice collections of beautiful Indian woodcarving (including Northwest Coast staffs, bentwood boxes, and wall plaques with similar designs to those on totem poles).

On the other hand, if you are looking to buy a totem pole that was actually made by Native Americans, here is our list of Northwestern and Alaskan Indian artists whose totems are available online. If you have a website of Indian totem carvings to add to this list, let us know. We gladly advertise any individual native artist or native-owned art store here free of charge, provided that all totems were made by tribally recognized American Indian/First Nations artists.

Thank you for your interest in Native American art!

Native Totem Pole Carvers



On our main site we do our best to avoid slowing down our page loading with graphics, but this is an art page about totem poles and crest carvings, so we'd really be remiss in not showing a few representative totem pole pictures. All photos are the property of their respective artists; please visit their sites to see their work in more depth.

Ron Sebastian Totem Poles
This Northwest Coast Indian artist makes full-size native totem poles by commission for museums and organizations. He will also carve a short totem pole (less than six feet tall), which is more affordable for an individual collector.
Hills Native Art Totems
This Canadian art store sells First Nations totem poles of many styles, and can also arrange commisions of custom-made tall poles.
British Columbia Indian Carvings
Native-owned store selling short totem poles made by a Kwakiutl First Nations artist. Email for prices.
Alaskan Totem Poles
Another good store that sells small totem poles (2 to 10 feet high) carved by Tlingit artists. Good for indoor display.
Spirits of the North Totem Poles
Coast Salish and other Native Canadian totem poles for sale.
Spirit Wrestler Sculpture
Northwest Coast totem poles, masks, and other fine wooden carvings.

American Indian Totem Pole Books

Totem Poles Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast Looking at Totem Poles Totem Pole
A good introduction to Native totems and the customs, symbols, and mythology associated with them. Illustrated encyclopedia of different totem pole crests and figures, techniques, and patterns. A guidebook to 110 historic totem poles that can be seen raised throughout British Columbia and Alaska, with photos, background and travel information. A nice children's book about a Tsimshian totem pole carver's son, with real totem pole photographs.


Totem Pole Links

Here are some other good internet resources for learning about or purchasing Native American totem poles:

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act: US law against passing off fake American Indian craft as genuine.
What constitutes Indian art fraud, and how to report it if you find it.
Totem Poles Exploration: Facts about the artistry and meaning of Native Indian totem poles. Many pictures.
Northwest Coast Totem Poles: Totem pole history, images and bibliography.
Totem Pole Designs: Description and photo examples of the different types of American Indian totems, including lineage poles,
memorial poles, mortuary poles, and shame poles.
Royal British Columbia Museum Totem Poles: Photographs of ancient totem poles from the museum's collection.
Native American Totem Symbols: Northwest Coast Native organization explains the symbolism of animals in totem art.
Haisla Totem Repatriation: Interesting story of a Northwest Indian totem pole returned to the Haisla people by a Swedish museum who held it for 70 years.
Making a Haida Totem Pole: Online documentary video of the famous Haida artist Bill Reid carving a totem pole.
Indigenous Arts and Crafts: Orrin contributed to this larger directory of Indian crafts, many of which are authentic.
American Indian Cultures: View our pages for individual Indian tribes, most of which have artistic information.

About us: This website belongs to Native Languages of the Americas, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting endangered Native American languages. We are not artists ourselves, so if you are interested in buying totem poles featured on this page, please contact the artists directly. Though we have featured only Native North American totem poles identified with the name and tribal affiliation of each artist, we haven't called the tribal offices to check up on any of them, and we only know a few of them personally. We also don't guarantee any of their products. This is not an exhaustive list of Native American totem poles--if you would like us to add your totem pole site to this page, please contact us with your URL and tribal affiliation. We advertise any individual native artist or native-owned art business here free of charge. We do not link to totem poles which are not made by tribally recognized American Indian, Inuit, or First Nations artists, so please do not ask us to. And finally, websites do occasionally expire and change hands, so use your common sense and this general rule of thumb: if the creator of each individual artwork is not identified by name and specific tribe, you are probably not looking at a picture of a genuine Native American totem pole.



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