The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 20, 2012

Frankie Meyer: Totem poles full of family information

By Frankie Meyer
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Since the beginning of time, families and clans have developed ways to pass along information about their history and culture.

Some groups developed a written language, while others communicated the information through symbols painted on rocks, parchment or leather. Many tribes used shells to make beads that were used in telling their stories.

Clans along the Pacific Northwest coast of Alaska, Washington and British Columbia used wooden poles to tell their stories of family history, tribal history and culture. The carved poles (which were usually painted) were placed at the front of homes, inside homes as support beams or at the front of the clan’s longhouse.

A few poles were memorial poles that were placed at burial sites to honor deceased family members. Those carved pillars, called totem poles, are still being created and can be found throughout the northwest.

The purpose of the poles varies with the clans. The colors that are used also vary, with each color having a different meaning. Common colors are red, yellow, black, green, white, brown, turquoise and orange. Some of the materials used to create the paints are animal oils, minerals, salmon eggs, charcoal, moss and blood.

Clans also vary in the symbols that they use. Some symbols and their meanings are an eagle for a ruler, a hummingbird for love, a wolf for power, a bumble bee for honesty, an owl for wisdom, a frog for a rich person and a bear for a teacher. These symbols have other meanings, too.

Cedar logs are preferred for the poles because they last so long. Traditionally, once the poles were completed, they were not maintained but allowed to gradually go back to nature. Most lasted 100 years or less. They were usually about 40 feet tall.

Stories are often told from the bottom up, with the most important aspects of the story at the bottom. Since the bottom is more easily viewed, the most skilled artists are traditionally selected for those parts. The old, derogatory adage “bottom of the totem pole” rarely applies to real totem poles.

The creation of a pole takes several months. When it is finished, the family holds a potlatch, which is a celebration attended by hundreds of people. As the pole is raised, artisans dance around the pole. Guests dance and sing, too.

When Jim and I were in Vancouver, British Columbia, a few years ago, we went to Stanley Park and saw the famous set of totem poles there. I was astounded by their unique beauty. Had I been more familiar with their history, I would have tried to “read” their stories.

Suggestions or queries? Write to Frankie Meyer, 509 N. Center St., Plainfield, IN 46168, or email