Scholars and practitioners agree that Canada has numerous artifacts that serve as lenses through which to view certain features of the Canadian culture as are created by humans of diverse cultural orientations to provide information-rich in cultural context (Mackey 368). This short paper assesses the totem pole cultural artifact.
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To many Canadians, the totem poles are cultural artifacts or “…monuments created by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people, or events” (University of British Columbia para. 1).
The origins of totem poles construction in Canada are not known, but no examples of poles carved before 1800 exist due to the easy degradation of red cedar – a malleable wood that is used as the primary raw material in the creation of this group of cultural artifacts (Totem Poles para. 1).
Most totem poles average between 3 and 20 meters in height (Mackey 370; University of British Columbia para. 5), and are either two-dimensional or three-dimensional (Totem Poles para. 6). Irrespective of dimension, most of these artifacts are maintained within a complex design system that was developed by Northwest Coast Native Peoples “…over many thousands of years, as evidenced by stone and bone artifacts uncovered in archeological studies which display clear examples of the same design” (Totem Poles para. 6).
In construction and decoration, extant literature shows that the “Northern” style of the totem poles, which is characteristically related to Canadians of Northwestern British Columbia, uses colors that are almost entirely limited to black, red and turquoise (Totem Poles para. 7).
To demonstrate that cultural artifacts attempt to provide information about a particular group of people or cultural outfit, the Wakashan and Coast Salish-speaking peoples of Southern British Columbia, who inhabit the Vancouver Island and the nearby mainland, employ elaborate utilization of colors (e.g., black, red, white, turquoise, green, yellow, etc.) to create totem poles with dramatic thunderbirds and crest figures (Totem Poles para. 12).
In all the instances, however, “…the surface finish consists of thousands of fine adze cuts incised in parallel lines that cover all the unpainted surfaces of the pole and follow the contours of the sculpture (Totem Poles para. 15). As mentioned earlier, most totem poles are normally made from red cedar, a malleable wood comparatively plentiful in the Pacific Northwest (University of British Columbia para. 1).
In the Canadian context, the uses and functions of totem poles are as diverse as the cultures that create them. Certainly, the functions of these artifacts resonate along a continuum from a celebration of cultural beliefs (e.g., communicating familiar legends, clan lineages or notable events) on the one hand, to artistic presentations (e.g., communicating artistry and beauty) on the other hand (Mackay 380).
Extant literature demonstrates that “…most totem poles display beings, or crest animals, marking a family’s lineage and validating the powerful rights and privileges that the family held” (University of British Columbia para. 2). Indeed, according to this particular source, the cultural artifacts would not essentially narrate a story so much as they would function to document narratives and past events that continue to guide, influence and shape the lives of families, clans, and communities.
Totem poles have been used to honor wealthy and influential families, and also to commemorate important events that bind the community together. It should, however, be noted that these cultural artifacts have never been objects of worship and were only associated with ‘idol worship’ by the Christians who went to Canada in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Mackay, Eva. “Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in a Multicultural Nation: Contests over Truth in the into the Heart of Africa Controversy.” Canadian Cultural Studies. Ed. Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurschou. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. 366-382. Print.
Totem Poles. n.d. Web.
University of British Columbia. Totem Poles 2009. Web.