Clarissa Johal: Thoughtful Thursday-Totems

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thoughtful Thursday-Totems

Last May, I took a trip to Canada. In addition to uninterrupted hours of writing, I was able to do some sightseeing and reconnect. I grew up around First Nations totem art. I love the anthropomorphic faces and the complexity. Totem poles of the Northwest Coast are probably the most recognizable artifact of the culture.

The poles are usually carved from red cedar and complex in design. They were never used as objects of worship or to "ward" off evil spirits. They tell a story, revealed only if one knows the meaning assigned to various animals, fish, birds and designs and where they are placed on the pole.

This is storytelling at its finest; no written words where the "reader" has free reign to elaborate.

Some Animal Symbols 
(meaning varies according to tribe)

Killer Whale - Representing strength and bravery. The mythology of the killer whale states they will bring food and assistance to those in need.
Beaver - Creative, artistic and determined.
Raven - The trickster. Curious and mischievous.
Sea Turtle - Representative of Mother Earth.
Thunderbird - Manifests thunder while beating its wings and lightening by blinking it's eyes.
Eagle - Intelligent and resourceful. He rules the sky and is able to transform himself into a human.
Wolf - Very powerful with the ability to help people that are sick or in need. Represents strong family bonds.
Bear - Strength, a teacher and motherhood. It is believed that the bear taught the people how to hunt and pick berries.
Dogfish - Persistence and strength.
Moon - Protector and guardian at night.
Seal - Bright, inquisitive.
Dragonfly - Ever-changing life.
Frog - Known for bringing wealth.
Otter - A symbol of laughter, curiosity, grace, mischievousness and empathy.
Salmon - Instinct, persistence, and determination.
Owl - Symbolizes the souls of the departed.

(meaning varies according to tribe)

White: Symbolizes the skies and the spacious heavens. Also purity, peace and death.
Red: Symbolizes blood, war or valor. Sometimes, it is used purely as it appears in nature.
Blue: Symbolizes oceans, rivers, lakes and the sky. It stands for sincerity and happiness.
Yellow: Symbolizes the sun, light and happiness.
Green: Represents the earth, the hills, trees, and mountains.
Purple: Used to represent mountains in the distance.
Black: Represents power.

Pole Types

Heraldic totems were carved with human or animal forms. They represented the clans standing, ancestry, rights and accomplishments.
House posts were located the center of longhouses to support the building. Similarly, some longhouses featured a house frontal pole, which would be located at the main entrance and often contained an opening for passage into the house.
Mortuary poles served as both a tomb and a headstone. They oftentimes contained the remains of the deceased in grave boxes at the top, Likewise, a memorial or commemorative pole was often created to honor an important deceased person. These poles carry a story of the deceased.
Legend Poles illustrate folklore or real life experiences.
Potlatch Poles commemorate a festival or event.
Shame poles were less common but served to ridicule neighboring tribes or those who have unpaid debts. Recently, they have been used as a form of protest against the loss of Aboriginal territory or for other political grievances.

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