There are many faces of Alaska—soaring snow-covered peaks, bald eagles flying high, the grizzly bear foraging, and native Tlingit totem poles. We fell in love with totem poles. Traditionally, they have been carved for various reasons: to show family lineage, to teach history or illustrate experiences, to honor the dead, to proclaim contracts, or even to publicly ridicule someone into paying a debt.
Traditional Totem Meanings
Killer whale, guardian of the seas, signifies nobility and power. Frog is a symbol of respect for the nature and order of the world. The moon is a powerful celestial spirit, a mover of tides and indicator of the changing seasons. The tinnah—a large, shield-like piece traditionally made of copper—was a symbol of wealth. Raven is the Creator in northwest mythology. He is a symbol of wit and intelligence, with a precocious nature. Salmon is a figure of renewal and sustenance. The eagle is a bird of great wisdom, strength, and power.
Totem Pole Pigments
Prior to the availability of commercial paints, native pigments were made from locally available materials. Red came from iron-stained earth or clay, black from charcoal or soot, and blue-green from copper oxides. White could be made from burned clam shells. Powdered raw materials mixed with chewed, dry salmon eggs created the carvers’ paints. The difficulty in making paint helps to explain why only the most important features of a large sculptural piece like a totem pole were painted.