Since they are made of cedar, which decays eventually in the rainforest environment of the Northwest Coast, few examples of poles carved before 1900 exist. Noteworthy examples include those at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver, BC, dating as far back as 1880. And, while 18th-century accounts of European explorers along the coast indicate that poles existed prior to 1800, they were smaller and few in number.
The freestanding poles seen by the first European explorers were likely preceded by a long history of monumental carving, particularly of interior house posts. The scholar Eddie Malin has proposed that totem poles progressed from house posts, funerary containers, and memorial markers into symbols of clan and family wealth and prestige. He argues that the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands originated carving of the poles, and that the practice spread outward to the Tsimshian and Tlingit, and then down the coast to the tribes of British Columbia and northern Washington. This is supported by the photographic history of the Northwest Coast and the deeper sophistication of Haida poles. The regional stylistic differences among poles can be attributed to application of existing regional artistic styles to a new medium. Early 20th-century theories, such as those of the anthropologist Marius Barbeau, who considered the poles a post-contact phenomenon enabled by the introduction of metal tools, were treated with skepticism at the time and have been discredited in light of the above evidence.. Totem poles in front of houses in Alert Bay, British Columbia in the 1900s
The disruptions following American and European trade and settlement first led to a flowering of totem pole carving and then to a decline in the Alaska Native cultures and their crafts. The widespread importation of iron and steel tools from Britain, the United States and China led to much more rapid and accurate production of carved wooden goods, including poles. Historians have not determined if iron tools were introduced by traders, or whether Alaska Natives produced iron tools from drift iron recovered from shipwrecks; the presence of trading vessels and exploration ships simplified the acquisition of iron tools, whose use greatly enhanced totem pole construction.
The Maritime Fur Trade gave rise to a tremendous accumulation of wealth among the coastal peoples, and much of this wealth was spent and distributed in lavish potlatches frequently associated with the construction and erection of totem poles. Poles were commissioned by many wealthy leaders to represent their social status and the importance of their families and clans. By the 19th century, certain Christian missionaries reviled the totem pole as an object of heathen worship; they urged converts to cease production and destroy existing poles.
Due to United States and Canadian policies and practices of acculturation and assimilation, Alaska Natives sharply reduced their production of totem poles at the end of the 19th century . In the mid-20th century, a combination of cultural, linguistic, and artistic revival, along with intense scholarly scrutiny and the continuing fascination and support of an educated and empathetic public, led to a renewal and extension of this moribund artistic tradition. Freshly carved totem poles are being erected up and down the coast. Related artistic production is pouring forth in many new and traditional media, ranging from tourist trinkets to masterful works in wood, stone, blown and etched glass, and many other traditional and non-traditional media.
Today a number of successful native artists carve totem poles on commission, usually taking the opportunity to educate apprentices in the demanding art of traditional carving and its concomitant joinery. Such modern poles are almost always executed in traditional styles, although some artists have felt free to include...
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