If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Haida totem pole, from Old Kasaan

Totem poles in Ketchikan, Alaska tell a clan's history with different crests representing family lineage. These crests, often animals, share ancestral stories and are claimed matrilineally. The pole's orientation towards the water identifies the clan to passersby. Wealth is shown through unity and skill, not material possessions. Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.

Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Lauren] We're here at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska and we're looking at a very tall totem pole in the center of five poles. - [Teresa] And the poll we're looking at is sharing a certain clan's history. When you look at a pole, you can see the different clan crests and the different figures of humans and animals. What a clan crest for us amongst Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, it's like a last name. So you have a family that we follow, and it's always matrilineal, from your mother's side, is where you claim your clan crest from. We always acknowledge our father's people and who you're the child of, but we always follow the mother's side. Each family has a set of clan crests that they claim, and it's just not seen as theirs, but it sharing and reminding them of their history of their ancestors. So each animal crest that people put on their regalia, on their jewelry, on their hats when they dance or on a totem pole has a very special story that goes with it and how their ancestors interacted with that particular animal. If you look at this pole here, you see a combination of animals that are on the pole and each family has up to five or six clan crests that the family claims. That's why I tell people it's like a hyphenation. You don't just claim one, but you have a variety of clan crests that you claim because of your history through your mother's side. So if you look at the very top of the pole, you see a bird and we can tell us either a Thunderbird or an Eagle by the short hooked beak. Now, if it was straight and pointy than it would be a raven. Right below the claws of the bird, you see that very particular face that has that wide eyes, that special nose in a very wide mouth that is horizontal. That there is actually a frog and it reasserts that it's a frog design by the hands that are hanging on to the bentwood box. And we think of ourselves as we hang onto a box that our joints and our human fingers are straight. They don't curve. But if you look at the hands, that's hanging onto the bentwood box, that the fingers are curved so it reemphasizes that it's a frog hanging onto the box and right below the box, you see that tall figure, which we could tell it's a beaver by its ears that are close set on top of the head, that very distinguished nose, and you got the two front teeth and the eyes. The animal crests all have different eyes that vary from one animal to another. And right below the chin, you can see the hands that are hanging on to the chew stick. And right below the chew stick, you see remnants of a baby beaver hanging on to the crosshatched tail of the beaver. When we look at it, we could tell what family this is representing by the combination of the clan crest that's on display on the pole. - [Lauren] And I want to go back to something that you mentioned earlier. You noted that the frog is holding a bentwood box. Let's elaborate on what that is. - [Teresa] When you see this on a totem pole, I was told that it's representing a sense of wealth that the clan has. We don't think of wealth as in money, or we got a huge house or a car, like we think of nowadays. Traditionally, when we think of wealth, we think of unity. We think of the skill that we have. If you're wealthy, maybe you might have three or four Chilkat weavers in your family, in your clan, or you might have three or four totem pole carvers, and you have the unity of your clan members working together to complete different cultural events. - [Lauren] I'm really struck by the different ways that the carver has accentuated features for the different crests here. Look at the eyes of the frog, the deeper carving to give the sense that the eyes are inset like you might see on an actual frog. And then with the shallower carving to differentiate parts of the mouth or the teeth. It really gives you this three-dimensional quality that would have been picked out with paint at one point to accentuate these features further. - [Teresa] When you see a pole like this, that has the clan crest, and when we raised the polls long time ago, one of the common things that you would notice is that normally you would see all the totem poles facing the water. It would help identify what clans live or interacted with the village area that you're in. So the idea is when you go by a village in a canoe, you can look at the shoreline, you can look at the houses and the totem poles, and you can see the different clan crests. If you look at a totem pole like this and you see those three figures, then you know what clan is involved or lived in this area that's interacted with them. (jazzy piano music)