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History of the Canada Totem Pole
West Coast Art Totem Poles

Whenever visitors travel in and around the Pacific coastlines of the US states of Washington, Oregon and the Canadian province of British Columbia, they will likely see Northwest Native totem poles as part of the local West Coast art. One of the main attractions at Vancouver's Stanley Park is its collection of totem poles. There are also on display, totem poles and other West Coast art at the Vancouver International Airport.

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West Coast Art Totem Poles at Vancouver's Stanley Park

The history of the Canada totem pole goes back for generations. The totems had multiple Northwest Native figures carved on tall, western cedar poles. It was intended to have each figure represent a meaning. Overall, a totem pole told a real life or mythical story. Sometimes the figures also represented a Northwest Native family's crest or coat of arms recording their family history.

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The Kwakwak'wakw and Nuu-cha-nulth tribes made totem poles as giant human welcome figures. The Coast Salish people in southern BC and western Washington state carved large human figures on poles to represent ancestors and spirit helpers.

Memorial poles were often placed in front of houses in honor of deceased chiefs. There were also mortuary poles made in the nineteenth century which housed at the top, the remains of important individuals.

In addition to free standing totem poles, there were also poles at the front of houses which also served as doorways. Poles decorated with West Coast art were also made inside houses to support roof beams.

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Close Up View of West Coast Art Totem Pole

The first Northwest Coast Native tribes who made totems as part of West Coast art were the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian in BC and southeast Alaska in the early 1800's (see Northwest Coast Native Art Region). Their use spread to other tribes in the Northwest region over the years.

There were ceremonies referred to as potlatches whenever new totem poles were raised. However, these potlatches were made illegal in Canada during the late 1800's. As a result, most Northwest Native tribes stopped making totem poles but still carved small models of poles for tourists. This anti-potlatch law was dropped in 1951 and the Northwest Native people resumed carving totem poles.

Totem poles have become one of the key symbols for the Northwest Native people. Many totem poles have been specially commissioned in recent times and erected in both public locations as well as in private West Coast art collections around the world. Foreign locations have included as far away as Japan and Germany. Totem poles made in BC have also been installed in some Canadian embassies abroad to represent one of Canada's cultural icons.

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The art of pole carving is now practised by artists from other Native groups who have studied West Coast totem pole techniques (see Canadian Aboriginal Art of Pole Carving video and Canadian Native Indian Art Totem Pole Carving Video).

There is also video footage of a very large Native Indian totem pole displayed at Montreal's McCord Museum.

Today, Native West Coast artists make some very stunning carvings of the characters and animals they have depicted on totem poles for so many years. Just imagine having such a beautiful piece of artwork hanging in your home. See Northwest Native American art carvings or Northwest Native American art prints at very affordable online prices available at Free Spirit Gallery.

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