The Story of Cedar on the Northwest Coast: History, Meaning, and Significance of Totem Poles

The Story of Cedar on the Northwest Coast: History, Meaning, and Significance of Totem Poles

Sam Sakaluk


A lot of my undergraduate work has focused on semiotic theory and visual communication, exploring meaning production through material communicative tools and mnemonic devices. I have previously researched and written on how Indigenous wampum belts and stained glass windows transmitted messages and meanings through their design and historical and contemporary uses. I have applications in with the Masters of Communication program at UOttawa and the joint York-TMU program where I hope to be able to continue this type of research!

Research Summary

The clans that make up the Haida people have occupied the Haida Gwaii, an archipelago, just off the coast of British Columbia, for over 12,000 years. On the Haida Gwaii, there are six different kinds of totem poles. There are house posts that support the home, house frontal poles as entryways, and welcome figures that greet arriving guests from the beach. The most significant types relate to death. They are memorial poles, raised by that person’s successor, mortuary poles, which have grave boxes incorporated into the pole, and grave markers, which act like our headstones. The faces or crests that are carved into totem poles are likewise full of meaning. They are purposefully chosen to make a statement about group membership and identity, and are therefore highly personalized because their stories about family and community history are locked in the way the crests were arranged along the poles. For example, the face of an eagle, which is quite a famous representation, tells the viewer that the person the pole was made for has a direct matrilineal kinship tie to the eagle itself and, therefore, the Eagle clan. Following contact between the Haida and Europeans post-1774, material cultural threats under colonialist practices of uproot, destroy, or archive nearly destroyed Haida totem poles. Similarly, European conflict and disease almost wiped out the Haida, resulting in the natural or unchallenged felling of many examples on their lands. Today, many surviving totem poles are kept in private collections or museum archives, with some as far away as Oxford. Through cultural appropriation, their image has become a symbol of Canadian identity, but what they actually represent are extremely personal, even sacred, meanings related to the Haida people, their communities, and their ancestors. Fortunately, there has been an upsurge in Indigenous artists who are learning the traditional carving process, such as Christian White and Leon Ridley. Their efforts, along with the work of many others, are re-establishing totem poles as symbols of Haida identity and allowing their communities to create new stories and meanings that are represented in their work. There are also ongoing repatriation efforts that are seeing the Haida reconnected with poles carved by their ancestors, which creates new shared meaning in the poles but also restores the old ones as well.


History, Indigenous culture

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