June is Indigenous History Month, a time to celebrate the contributions, achievements, and culture of the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people of Canada.
Let's explore some Indigenous history and culture together and learn about totemism, and totem poles.
Totemism, a system of belief in which humans are said to have kinship or a mystical relationship with a spirit-being, such as an animal or plant. The entity, or totem, is thought to interact with a given kin group or an individual and to serve as their emblem or symbol.
The term totemism has been used to characterize a cluster of traits in the religion and in the social organization of many peoples. Totemism is manifested in various forms and types in different contexts and is most often found among populations whose traditional economies relied on hunting and gathering, or mixed farming with hunting and gathering.
You probably recognize a totem symbol, or totem pole, as they are common in other cultures and religions as well. Today however, I’ll be talking about the totem symbols and totemism in regards to Indigenous culture, and more specifically- where does the totem pole come from?
Most totem poles display beings, or crest animals, marking a family’s lineage and validating the powerful rights and privileges that the family held. Totem poles would not necessarily tell a story so much as it would serve to document stories and histories familiar to community members or particular family or clan members.
A totem pole typically features symbolic and stylized human, animal, and supernatural forms. Totem poles are primarily visual representations of kinship, depicting family crests and clan membership. For example, some Kwakwaka’wakw families of northern Vancouver Island belonging to the Thunderbird Clan will feature a Thunderbird crest and familial legends on their poles. Other common crests among coastal First Nations include the wolf, eagle, grizzly bear, thunderbird, killer whale, frog, raven, and salmon. Influential families may have more than one crest. Totem poles can also be created to honour a particular event or important person.
Of all the material culture produced by coastal First Nations, the totem pole is likely one of the most recognizable cultural symbols of the Pacific Northwest. The array of different totem pole styles and designs reflect the rich diversity of the First Nations histories and cultures that produced them.
Learn more about Totem Poles in this short and engaging film,Totems: The stories they tell (rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca).
If you enjoyed reading about this piece of Indigenous history, you may also enjoy this resource of literature for National Indigenous History Month, Uplift Indigenous Voices | Penguin Random House Canada.