Totem poles are large posts bearing artistic, symbolically carved figures, often involving mythical creatures, ancient heroes and cultural events. Tlingit totem poles have a very distinct style considered as Northern Northwest Coast Indian Art. They are commonly found between British Columbia and Yakutat Bay, Alaska. Tlingit totem poles are prized by art collectors worldwide, and modern Tlingit sculptors continue to carve totem poles, often on commission, according to the traditional style
Totem poles decay quickly in the harsh environment of northwestern North America, so little is known about the history of Tlingit totem poles prior to 1800. According to oral tradition among Tlingit natives, totem poles existed well before English explorers discovered them, and European accounts from 18th century explorers also indicate their existence. Anthropologist Edward Malin's theory describes the evolution of totem poles from house posts and memorials to representations of clan affiliation, wealth and prestige. Malin's theory places the origin of Tlingit totem poles with the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands. According to Malin's theory, the art of totem pole carving later spread to the Tsimshian and Tlingit people, who applied their own distinct, regional artistic styles.
Tlingit totem poles are typically made from red or yellow cedar, which grow in abundance in the Northwest. Totem poles are carved in one piece from the trunk of a cedar tree, which are plentiful, large and easy to carve. Cedar is one of the most weather- and insect-resistant woods in the Tlingit region.
The adze consists of a long wooden handle topped by a thin, arched stone or iron blade set at a right angle. It was used to shape the initial form of the totem pole. Carving knives were made of shell, bone or stone before being constructed with metal. Carving knives are fashioned in many shapes and sizes according to their specific purpose and the carver's preference.
Each totem pole represents a different story, legend or tradition, usually associated with an ancestral heritage. Animal figures, such as bears, fish and beavers, are often used as totemic symbols. Animal symbols might represent clan membership, which follows the line of the mother, or tell stories from ancient folklore.
Totem poles often served as memorials and burial containers to honor a deceased family member or tribal chief, whose ashes were stored in a container carved into the back of the pole.
Totem poles were also created in commemoration of an important event. The Lincoln Pole honors Abraham Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery and restored one clan's honor and lands after they had been shunned for harboring Tlingit and Haida slaves.
Occasionally, totem poles were erected to shame someone who had wronged the village.
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