What's the deal with totem poles?


Announcer

Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark

Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. With me, as always is Charles W. Chuckers Bryant.

Chuck Bryant

Thank you.

Josh Clark

And Jeri, of course. Hi Jeri! She's waving at us.

Chuck Bryant

The omnipresent Jeri.

Josh Clark

And omniscient, scarily enough.

Chuck Bryant

Josh, before we get going, can I just mention a little TV show coming up?

Josh Clark

I thought we were already going.

Chuck Bryant

No, we're not quite going. There's a TV show, that our parent company, Discovery, specifically the Science Channel, has about a great fall tradition in Delaware, where they chunk punkins.

Josh Clark

Punkin chunkin.

Chuck Bryant

Punkin chunkin and they actually hurl these things through the air with a catapult. And its fun and they've done a TV show on it. It's on -

Josh Clark

They did two TV shows, buddy.

Chuck Bryant

Two.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Say the name.

Josh Clark

Well, at 8:00 on the Science Channel, that's Eastern Time, there's going to be the Road to Punkin Chunkin.

Chuck Bryant

And where does that road lead?

Josh Clark

To Punkin Chunkin itself.

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

At 9:00.

Chuck Bryant

And that is Thanksgiving night on the Science Channel and Science Channel HD.

Josh Clark

Yes.

Chuck Bryant

And we just wanted to say watch it.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Because we like chunkin punkins.

Josh Clark

Punkin chunkin.

Chuck Bryant

And now we're going to talk about whatever you're going to cleverly set it up as.

Josh Clark

All right. You ready?

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

Hey, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

Hey, Josh.

Josh Clark

Have you ever heard the phrase, "The low man on the totem pole?"

Chuck Bryant

I have, and you know what, go ahead.

Josh Clark

It's usually somebody who is the grunt. They're at the bottom. They're just -

Chuck Bryant

It's us.

Josh Clark

Okay. There you go, low man on the totem pole. Not true if you're suggesting that you and I are at the bottom of the heap.

Chuck Bryant

True. I had no idea.

Josh Clark

I'm so confused right now.

Chuck Bryant

I know. I know what you mean. It's actually on totem poles; the lower carvings were actually of the most high esteem.

Josh Clark

Right.

Chuck Bryant

Had no idea.

Josh Clark

You do now. And I do too because we read an article called, "How Totem Poles Work."

Chuck Bryant

By the way, I think we should start using the correct version of that just to confuse people. Like get on the elevator and like how's work go. Well you know I'm the low man on the totem pole. They're like sorry, and you're like what are you talking about, I'm the VP.

Josh Clark

Right, yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Things are great.

Josh Clark

When one of the higher ups walks by, go there goes the low man on the totem pole.

Chuck Bryant

Right, exactly.

Josh Clark

Give me some skin.

Chuck Bryant

What happened? Did they get fire?

Josh Clark

So yeah, okay. Well, Chuck and I are going to start confusing people after this. But let's talk about totem poles first.

Chuck Bryant

Okay, let's do.

Josh Clark

I learned a lot of stuff in this one that I didn't know.

Chuck Bryant

Everything I read in here, I learned because I knew nothing about totem poles. Really.

Josh Clark

Have you ever seen them?

Chuck Bryant

Well I've seen them, but I didn't know anything aside from it's a pole.

Josh Clark

All right. Well let's talk. Let's share this information that we've learned.

Chuck Bryant

Let's impart it.

Josh Clark

One of the things that I learned besides low man on the totem pole being actually important is that the natives, Native Americans, actually had socioeconomic strata.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Stratum.

Chuck Bryant

I didn't know that either.

Josh Clark

Strata, one of the two.

Chuck Bryant

Yes, they did and I know what you're talking about here because totem poles were typically commissioned by people of esteem and people who had money.

Josh Clark

Right, people who wanted to show off, basically. And what they would do would be to commission a totem carver.

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

Who was a person of high authority, the low man on the totem pole, I might say. And the head carver would basically be treated with tons of esteem and respect and was housed at the home of the person who would commission the totem pole.

Chuck Bryant

They'd live with them.

Josh Clark

Yeah and basically be treated like royalty because I guess this guy could be like once you've commissioned this, I'm going to do it. And if you mistreat me or I am not amused at any point in time, I'm going to carve you naked on this and you have to put it up.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Because that is the law of the Pacific Northwest.

Chuck Bryant

I got this from this that totem pole carvers were like mini temperamental artists. It's kind of funny how they had that same attitude, like -

Josh Clark

It's cross-cultural.

Chuck Bryant

If you don't make me happy, I'm going to ruin your commissioned work and shame you.

Josh Clark

Right.

Chuck Bryant

With a shame pole or not necessarily shame pole.

Josh Clark

We'll get to that later. Aw, Chuck just (inaudible).

Chuck Bryant

Spoiler.

Josh Clark

So the other thing I learned is that - I'm just going to introduce every point with that for this whole podcast. Another thing I learned is that totem poles haven't been around that long.

Chuck Bryant

No, I did not know that either. And I will say that at the end of every time you mention that, that I didn't realize it. They have just started in the 1700s.

Josh Clark

Late 1700s, no less.

Chuck Bryant

When the Europeans came over is when they really, really started booming.

Josh Clark

They think the Haida Tribe, H-A-I-D-A Tribe of Southeastern Alaska were the first to start carving totem poles. And I guess it was kind of slow going at first, but really picked up once settlers, colonists started hitting the Pacific Northwest in more and more numbers because they brought with them, tools.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, but they were a little frightened by them.

Josh Clark

They were which is funny because from what I understand, European settlers were among the most superstitious, easily frightened and most suspicious people ever to populate the Earth.

Chuck Bryant

Seriously.

Josh Clark

Yeah, so they saw totem poles, and I think Captain James Cook had a famous quote, right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, he said that they were truly monstrous figures.

Josh Clark

Yes, and he was wrong. And then you also have the superstition or myth that totem poles were used to ward off or worship evil spirits.

Chuck Bryant

Not true.

Josh Clark

Depending on how you felt toward your native neighbors.

Chuck Bryant

Not true.

Josh Clark

No. So what is totem pole, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant

Well a totem pole -

Josh Clark

And totem, by the way, is an Ojibwa word.

Chuck Bryant

Is it really?

Josh Clark

Uh-huh.

Chuck Bryant

Josh actually winked at me, by the way, just then, for real. A totem pole, Josh, many times is used to commemorate an event, like I looked some of these up. What am I commemorate, a funeral sometimes, childbirth, marriage and even menarche.

Josh Clark

No.

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

No.

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

Yes.

Chuck Bryant

I read that. That is true. And they could range in size. And I didn't know this either, they could be as small as like a walking cane.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Way smaller than I thought. I thought they were all extremely large.

Josh Clark

No, they definitely vary in size. I've seen some that are like knee high to a grasshopper, as you like to say. And then there's others that are 170 feet tall.

Chuck Bryant

Right, which we'll get into the world records here shortly, too.

Josh Clark

And not just any - no jackass could come along and carve some wood up and say I just made me a totem pole. There are some very specific, I guess, details that have to be followed for a totem poled to truly be considered a totem pole.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, to be authentic, Josh, it needs to be the work of a trained Pacific Coast carver.

Josh Clark

Pacific Northwest.

Chuck Bryant

Pacific Northwest.

Josh Clark

Even more specific.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, no San Diego carvers up there. Forget them. It must be raised according to the specific American Indian traditions and ceremonies. There was a ceremony that goes along with it.

Josh Clark

Right.

Chuck Bryant

Which we'll get to. And it must be blessed by natives of the Northwest Pacific Coast.

Josh Clark

Plus, also, it doesn't hurt your case if you want to prove that you have an authentic totem pole that it be made from red or yellow cedar.

Chuck Bryant

Well sure.

Josh Clark

You can't use power tools or chainsaws.Chuck Bryant: Well they do now, but if you really want to be authentic.

Josh Clark

You just wasted your time if you're trying to make an authentic totem pole.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And there are certain colors that are traditionally followed, red, black, yellow, blue, green, white, which I find to be an unappealing color combination, those four or five.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, it said they did not need to be painted. And I've never seen a natural totem pole, but I think that would be my preference.

Josh Clark

Yes, and you can't preserve it in any way.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, I didn't know that either.

Josh Clark

Which means that totem poles ain't going to be around all that long. An authentic totem pole has a lifespan of about 100 years.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Especially in the Pacific Northwest, where it's wet, rainy, muggy, not good on carved wood.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, that's not bad though. 100 years is pretty good.

Josh Clark

Did I also say that it has to be from one single piece?

Chuck Bryant

Oh no, you didn't say that.

Josh Clark

That's important, too.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, of course.

Josh Clark

Okay, so Chuck, basically we've established that totem poles, there's authentic and there's inauthentic ones. You can't just be some jackass with a chainsaw.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

They are the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of the Native American culture.

Chuck Bryant

Sure, with a ceremony.

Josh Clark

Sure, and they are commissioned, usually, by a wealthy Native American by a head carver.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

So you've got the head carver. He's got a couple of junior carvers and they get to work. And here we reach why the low man on the totem pole is actually the most prominent figure.

Chuck Bryant

I know why.

Josh Clark

Why?

Chuck Bryant

Because the head carver carves the lower parts of the totem pole.

Josh Clark

Yeah, the first ten feet.

Chuck Bryant

And I would say, and this is just a guess, but I would say probably because they don't want to stand on whatever you need to stand on.

Josh Clark

That's part of it. That's also the most visible and scrutinize-able.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, yeah, good point.

Josh Clark

So the carver finishes and probably some of the stuff that he's put on there, there's some - basically, he'll say tell me about your family history. What kind of birds are you fond of? Do you have any ancestor who has ever shape shifted into an animal?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And the carver is going to take all of this into account. The person who commissioned it will probably have some ideas and then they combine them and you have things like eagles, thunderbirds, bears, owls, wolves, ravens, frogs. And each one kind of has a different meaning in Native American culture.

Chuck Bryant

Sure, should we go over those, briefly?

Josh Clark

Sure.

Chuck Bryant

Well, the eagle, obviously, flies higher than any other bird.

Josh Clark

It's high.

Chuck Bryant

And it can spot trouble, so that's a good thing.

Josh Clark

Sure.

Chuck Bryant

And the thunderbird is mythological creature and it can create lightening and thunder by beating its wings and blinking.

Josh Clark

Which is why it's mythological?

Chuck Bryant

Yes. Bear, obviously teaches natives certain things, like how to hunt salmon and how to forage for berries, so that's probably good luck to have on your pole. Owls represent souls of the deceased, so that might be a mortuary pole. Actually, no, that's when the ashes are actually in the pole, correct?

Josh Clark

Right. That's a type of pole. There's an entryway totem pole, which is kind of like a coat of arms. And that's what a lot of the early settlers of the Pacific Northwest took these as, as a coat of arms, like family coat of arms. So you've got entryway totem poles, mortuary poles, which actually do have a hollow cavity to put the ashes of a dead person in.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, it's like an urn, basically.

Josh Clark

Yeah, a very cool urn.

Chuck Bryant

A very tall urn.

Josh Clark

And then there's ridicule or shame poles you mentioned, right?

Chuck Bryant

That's what - I want to bring back the shame pole.

Josh Clark

So, Chuck, talk about the most famous one, the Lincoln pole in Saxman, Alaska.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, this is when - and I didn't know this either. This is chock full of -

Josh Clark

This is another thing I learned. Native Americans had slaves.

Chuck Bryant

The Lincoln pole was actually to shame the U.S. government because of the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863. And many members of the - was that Tlingit. Is that how it's pronounced, the Tlingit Tribe.

Josh Clark

Flingit.

Chuck Bryant

I think the T might be silent.

Josh Clark

Oh, okay.

Chuck Bryant

But their slaves were freed. I didn't know Native Americans had slaves.

Josh Clark

I know. That's what I just said, neither did I.

Chuck Bryant

And so they got all mad and said you know what, we're going to do a Lincoln pole and it's going to shame President Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Josh Clark

Actually, that's not true. I guess I did know that they would capture other people in battle and force them into slavery.

Chuck Bryant

I didn't know that.

Josh Clark

Okay, so Chuck, we've got the type of pole established.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

We know what's on the pole. And it has to be raised now.

Chuck Bryant

Well this is when the fun starts.

Josh Clark

The rowdy fun.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, we're talking about the potlatch, and a potlatch is basically a big whopping party that you raise the pole, obviously. You put it near the ground and you have the ropes. You pull it up and sink it into the ground. And then, it sounds like, from what I researched on potlatches, it's just a big frigging party.

Josh Clark

So now we've reached the Native American equivalent of a Bat Mitzvah and an Amish barn raising put together.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, do they do the same thing?

Josh Clark

Well the Amish raise barns. It's a big communal event. Haven't you ever seen Witness?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, but do they have a big party?

Josh Clark

Yeah, well an Amish party. Everyone eats sandwiches and drinks lemonade. Woohoo. And the reason we can get away with that is because no Amish person will ever hear this podcast.

Chuck Bryant

That's right. And if you write in and say you're offended because you're Amish, then you are a liar.

Josh Clark

Liar. All right. So, Chuck, they have a great party. And apparently, it does get rowdy, as I alluded to before because the Canadian government actually banned potlatches.

Chuck Bryant

I know.

Josh Clark

At some point in time. And they - that had a really deleterious effect on the number of totem poles that were carved and raised in North America in the 20th Century.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, because a totem pole without a potlatch is like a donut with out a hole.

Josh Clark

Very much so. It's like a jelly donut.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

And that's not the only reason that totem pole carving declined in the 20th Century. And actually, it came very close to the point of extinction. The Native American children were not being educated in traditional means any longer, in the traditional ways.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, sure.

Josh Clark

So they were losing that knowledge of how to carve a decent thunderbird. There weren't a lot of head carvers that were being trained any longer.

Chuck Bryant

Atari.

Josh Clark

Atari is generally pointed to as one of the biggest reasons that totem pole raisings declined. And there was also a ton of theft by museums and private people.

Chuck Bryant

I didn't hear about that.

Josh Clark

Who would just go steal totem poles for their own collections?

Chuck Bryant

So how do you hide a totem pole?

Josh Clark

I don't think you really try to. You just say you've been exploited by my people a really long time. I'll just take this and get away with it.

Chuck Bryant

Gotcha.

Josh Clark

It was so rampant, in fact, that in 1990, President George H. W. Bush.

Chuck Bryant

Herbert Walker.

Josh Clark

Yeah, Herbert, right. Bush signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and it basically said if you ever stolen a totem pole, take it back. And people did. And as a result of this kind of renewed enthusiasm for totem poles, we lost our puritanical fear of them. People started carving them again.

Chuck Bryant

You know what else is in that bill?

Josh Clark

What?

Chuck Bryant

Wire tappings.

Josh Clark

I'll bet.

Chuck Bryant

They try to sneak wire tappings in.

Josh Clark

Take totem poles back and talk openly on your phones.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

So okay, so there's resurgence in totem pole creation, right.

Chuck Bryant

Yes, indeed.

Josh Clark

In native and non-native. So let's say, Chuck, I'm like I want an authentic totem pole to talk about my daughter's menarche.

Chuck Bryant

Well then, like anything else, you would get on the Internet and search totem pole carving and you would find some people that do that for a living.

Josh Clark

Right, some native and some non-native.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, depending on what you're looking for.

Josh Clark

So if I wanted an authentic one, how much am I going to shell out?

Chuck Bryant

Josh, you would have to pay about 25 grand to 100 grand for authentic.

Josh Clark

Outrageous.

Chuck Bryant

I won't pay more than $10,000.00 for that totem pole.

Josh Clark

You charlatan.

Chuck Bryant

Menarche or no menarche. So yeah, and I think 750 bucks is the low end of a non-authentic, three foot pole.

Josh Clark

And about 15 grand for a 20 footer, right?

Chuck Bryant

Non-authentic.

Josh Clark

Non-authentic.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Right.

Chuck Bryant

But who knows? No one knows.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Josh, you want to talk about the records.

Josh Clark

Yes, this is stat heavy, Chuck, stat heavy. Everything that comes out of Chuck's mouth right now is a statistic, right?

Chuck Bryant

Richard, in South Korea, good luck here, buddy. Albert Bay British Columbia has 173 foot tall totem.

Josh Clark

That's got to be the world's tallest totem pole, right?

Chuck Bryant

No, think again, sir because there was one that the Guinness Book certified at 185 feet.

Josh Clark

That's got to be the world's tallest totem pole, then.

Chuck Bryant

In Victoria, British Columbia. But you know what? It was torn down because of controversy. The town, evidently, got really upset about all the grief about the Guinness Book record and was it authentic and was it really the tallest one. So an angry mob, from what I gather led by Moe da bartender tear down this totem pole and cut it up into pieces and burn it.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

The record holder.

Josh Clark

There goes the grief.

Chuck Bryant

I mean how much grief could it have caused?

Josh Clark

I don't know. Yeah. That's got to be - I've been to Victoria. It's not exactly like a rough and tumble town. It's pretty peaceful. So I imagine there must have been a tremendous amount of grief.

Chuck Bryant

I guess so.

Josh Clark

Or they hadn't put their chainsaws to use lately and were looking - Betty was hungry.

Chuck Bryant

Right. But the thickest pole, Josh, is not disputed.

Josh Clark

No.

Chuck Bryant

That is in British Columbia, as well. And that was carved by Richard Hunt in 1988. And it has a diameter of six feet. That is one thick pole.

Josh Clark

Yeah, and I'd like to say Richard Hunt, if you listen to this podcast, I would like to see a picture of your totem pole.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, seriously.

Josh Clark

So e-mail it to us.

Chuck Bryant

I couldn't find a picture of it.

Josh Clark

We'll give the e-mail address at the end, right now.

Chuck Bryant

Is that the end?

Josh Clark

I think so. You got any more on totem poles?

Chuck Bryant

I've got nothing else. I like the ones with the wings. I'll just say that, like at the top.

Josh Clark

The thunderbird.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, like the thunderbird with the wings coming off the side. I like those.

Josh Clark

That doesn't make sense to have them at the top, but that's the least important. Well if you want to know more about totem poles, and I kid you not, Chuck and I learned a lot of surprising facts that were just kind of in between the lines of this article. It happens a lot on HowStuffWorks.com, you could type totem poles into the handy search bar of our venerated site and I guess it's time for listener mail, right?

Chuck Bryant

Yes, Josh. I'm just going to call this I like to read these funny e-mails from time to time.

Josh Clark

Okay.

Chuck Bryant

This guy is really funny. He's a good writer. He's clever, so he gets on the air. This says hey guys, I've been traveling backwards in time and I'm writing you from February 2009, where Haiku Theater ends abruptly with refrigerator and sayings like the Germans, compass head and it's a Ponzi scheme haven't even been uttered yet. By some strange quirk, when I load your podcast into my iPod, they play back in reverse chronological order, giving me side effects like hearing listener mail for episodes that haven't happened yet.

Josh Clark

Weird.

Chuck Bryant

However, unless I start tattooing myself like the guy Mamino, I'll probably just keep things the same as it makes listening even more fun. We've heard this before, that people listen out of order and they like that better. I'm not stranger to self-imposed odd circumstance. For instance, I purposely use my mouse left handed, even though I'm right handed. I sometimes reason things out while I'm dreaming. I often balance on one leg while brushing my teeth.

Josh Clark

I like this guy.

Chuck Bryant

I learned to read things upside down. And he has also run into some groovy things like when I was in the Army, I knew a guy who saw things upside down and backwards. He learned to cope by writing things upside and forwards, or I guess right side up, no upside down.

Josh Clark

Right side up.

Chuck Bryant

I once dated a girl whose mother would eat the same thing for every meal for a period of time. Two weeks of hardboiled eggs for every meal, black licorice for three days straight, etcetera. And I once worked with a guy who owned a car that wouldn't make left hand turns. That's my favorite. And basically, he's leading up to a request. All this makes me wonder if you should do a podcast on something like how living strangely works, an explanation of odd things that people choose to do, which may or may not actually provide tangible benefit to their lives.

Josh Clark

We'll get Fuller to pitch it.

Chuck Bryant

Maybe so. So that is from Michael Mc you're not going to say my last name on the air anyway, Kracken, from Colorado.

Josh Clark

Nice. Thank you Michael.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah,very funny.

Josh Clark

Yeah, if you have a funny e-mail you'd like to send Chuck and I.

Chuck Bryant

They're our favorite.

Josh Clark

You can send it to - wait, or if your name is Richard Hunt and you've created the world's thickest totem pole, you can send it to StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Want more How Stuff Works? Check out our blogs on the HowStuffWorks.com home page.