For centuries, coastlines, coves, river shorelines, and inlets from Alaska southward to Washington State were dotted with the sky-scraping carved cedar totem poles that depicted the history and legacies of those First Nation and Native American residents who called this gorgeous region their home. These often colorful works of art etched timber skylines against the rain forest backdrop of green. The photograph at the top of this blogpost shows relocated and reconstructed examples of the variety of architecture employed by the six (6) First Nations of the Canadian portion of this vast region.
Sadly, following first contact with Europeans,many of these iconic features were lost to theft, relocation, destruction, deterioration, and decay. Thankfully, members of these proud nations have retained and passed on the skills necessary to carve and construct totem poles. As a result, these majestic marvels of carved cedar have been reestablished across the Pacific Northwest Coast in community after community with more being carved or raised by the month. There is not sufficient space available in this blog to summarize the rich history and variety of these nations, nor to adequately tell the whole story of totem poles. Those will be left to traditional books and other documentation.
While researching this topic, it became apparent that there does not seem to be a centralized database of totem poles for archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, or archivists to reference. So, in a probably futile attempt to catalogue the taller totem poles, a follow-up blogpost is being prepared for such a purpose. In order to keep the list manageable, a minimum height of 20 feet was set for inclusion.
Below is a brief list of the ten (10) tallest existing totem poles identified thus far. As can be seen by some of the [notes], these totem poles are subjected to the elements daily and require routine care. Even then, over time, if left to Mother Nature and not moved indoors, they will need to be replaced by a replica and eventually laid to rest in the forest.
Place State or Province (Location/”Name” – Master Carver, Year Raised) = Height [Notes]
- Alert Bay, British Columbia (near Big House – Jimmy Dick, 1973) = 173 feet [constructed using two (2) trees]
- McKinleyville, California (McKinleyville Center – Hank Pierson, 1984) = 144 feet 8 inches [replica of original – height provided does not include the lightning rod at top]
- Kalama, Washington (Marina Park “Wineburg” – Don ‘Chief Lelooska’ Smith, 1974) = 140 feet [to be taken down due to condition in 2018]
- Take, Alaska (Carl Heinmiller, 1971) = 132 feet [partially snapped in 2015 and guy wires have since been added]
- Victoria, British Columbia (Beacon Hill Park: “Story” – Mungo Martin, 1956) = 127 feet 7 inches [scheduled to be laid to rest within the next 5-10 years due to age/condition]
- Vancouver, British Columbia (Maritime Museum/Hadden Park: “Centennial” – Mungo Martin, 1958) = 100 feet [possibly undergoing restoration]
- London, England (Windsor Great Park – Mungo Martin, 1958) = 100 feet [twin of “Centennial” in Vancouver listed above]
- Abingdon, Illinois (Steve Greenquist, 1969) = 83 feet [tallest east of the Rockies and likely not of traditional Native construction]
- Olympia, WA (State Capitol: “Lifting the Sky” – William Shelton, 1940) = 80 feet [in storage for restoration]
- Tacoma, Washington (Fireman’s Park – 1903) = 72 feet [originally 105 feet]
Sources: see list at the end of the post.
Any additions, updates or corrections to the above list are most welcome.
Also fascinating is how the iconic totem pole has grown beyond a being representation of a village, tribal clan, family, or story to become a well-recognized symbol of friendship and of reconciliation. In other cases, totem poles have become political symbols in the fight to preserve the environmental and/or promote peace. Thankfully, the days of totem pole theft for so-called “civic” display and boasting are gone. Instead, handsome totems poles are often bestowed as gifts between peoples, nations, and neighbors. Totem poles can also be a symbolic method for mending past wounds.
When possible, historic totems are being lovingly restored, rehabilitated, or safely protected in museum settings. Meanwhile, beautifully crafted replicas and new poles are adorning the Pacific Northwest Coast, just as they once were when European explorers first arrived.
Perhaps, if more societies on the planet shared the gifts of their skilled artisans and respected the cultural legacies of others, the world would be a much more peaceful and happier place. Stay tuned for the database – updates will be posted as it grows and more data is obtained. Peace!
If you are interested in more information on totem poles, here’s a visual link to one of many books on the topic available on Amazon*.
* A small commission is earned by us from purchases that are made using this visual link to Amazon.