Totem Pole Big Wood Indian Shop Little Big Horn Totem poles

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Totem poles

It is believed that the inhabitants of the north west coast of today's USA have been working on wood
for 5000 years. In the period between 1500 and 1700 AD patterns were carved into the beams of the
interior by various coastal tibes. The first metal tools fell into the hands fo the indeginous people
through European shipwrecks washed ashore on the Haida coast.
With this they were able to make solid graves and memorial decors out of wood.
In 1741, Captain Vitus Bering landed on Cape St. Elias ( Alaska) and found carved inner posts on long
houses. At that time, totem symbol figures and family coats of arms were regarded as a private matter.
From 1778 the British began to explore the northwest coast and an expedition led by James Cook
stopped in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. 
The logbooks mentioned, among other things, carved and painted inner posts of the houses,
but actually no free-standing totem poles. 
In 1778 ship draftsman Webber drew the ornate posts as the earliest evidence mentioned so far.
In 1788 the seaman Hohn Hewitt was captured by the Nootka and after his escape he wrote a book in
1791 about his experiences of great wooden figures and of large, carved and painted trees on Graham
Island. In the same year, Johan Barlett, a draftsman on board the Gustavus made the first pen
drawsings of a history totem pole that served as the outer post of a Haida longhouse.
The first truly free-standing totem poles were likely to be created by the domestic Tsimshian, 
Gitksan and Nisga'a First Nations.
There are also many legends based upon the making of the first totem pole.
The free-standing totem poles were very popular with museums and many were shipped around the 
world at the end of the 19th century.
The heyday of the totem poles extends from the middle to the end of the 19th century.
In particular the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Ägitksan, Nisga'a and Kwakiutl made totem poles.
The decline of the pile dwelling tradition had two main causes:
Many tribes were severely decimated after 1862 by the samallpox epidemics brought in by white
settlers. From the middle of the 19th century the tribes were seriously proselytized and due to the
missionaries' misinterpretation and disrespect of the native coats of arms and historical figures as
pagan symbols, the pole construction was gradually abandoned and already existing totem poles were
even destroyed.
From 1880 onwards, hundreds of totem poles found their way into museums. Some were removed with
permission, but many were simply looted or blackmailed by tribal members. Not only totem poles were
removed, but almost all traditional objects of value.
In 1920 the collector of the art museum in Portland, Alex Rasmussen wrote that the British Columbian
First Nations had been deprived of all goods and things of value from their former tradtitional life.
Between 1890 and 1940 almost no new totem poles were erected and therefore no related cremonies
were held. From the end of the 20s, however, old decaying totem poles began to be restored.
The old traditions were occasionally passed on, so that new generations of carvers grew up, such as
Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin from the Kwakiutl tribe.
From 1955 onwards, public recognition grew and totems were erected again.
In 1969 the first new totem pole carved in 50 years by Robert Davidson was erected on Haida Gwaii.

About the totem pole variants:

Small free standing totem poles are usually made by a carver or two and represent a single story or
coat of arms.
Frontal totem poles used to be carved into the supporting posts of the central beams of longhouses
until their size became a problem. Later the front posts were put together from extra trunks and were
often taller than the house itself. As they were a sign of high esteem these houses mostly belonged to
the chief and his family.

Welcome poles and greeting figures are among the earliest types of totem poles. They were often set
up to commemorate outdoor farms or to mark moorings. 
Today you can often see them at the entrances to parks, museums or other cultural sites.

Wooden boards were attached in or on long houses as decoration. They are extremely rare to find and
were a Coast Salish specialty.

Grave totem poles can easily be recognized by the large cross panels, which remind the spectator of the
front of a chest.
This type of totem pole was developed by the Haida and often housed the ashes of the dead.

Significance and meaning of the totem poles  

A totem pole is read from bottom to top and they often have multiple meanings. They can tell stories,
be a coat of arms pole and at the same time commemorate a tribal elder. For example, the bear can be
a family crest, the history of the bear, or a feature of the bear. Some poles are a reiminder of a brave
person or memorable events, such as natural disasters. 
But there are also poles that shame and ridicule the owner. This happened when the client did not want
to pay the pole or violated the protocol.  
Other totem poles give the owner a legal claim to certain coats of arms, symbols or represent the family
descent. Nowadays the different styles are cratively mixed and further developed.
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