WTF Fun Fact 13752 – Top of the Totem Pole

Many people think the top of the totem pole is the most important. This belief is flat-out wrong. The bottom is often the most significant. Understanding this is crucial to appreciating totem poles properly. Let’s explore why people misunderstand totem poles and why the bottom matters more.

Totem poles come from Indigenous cultures in the Pacific Northwest. They are intricate carvings representing family crests, legends, or important events. These tall structures tell stories, and each figure on the pole has a purpose. People often believe the figure at the top holds the most importance. However, this is a big misconception.

The top figure is often the least important. Carvers place the most significant figures at the bottom. This positioning keeps them closer to the people who view the pole. The bottom figures usually represent the family’s main totems or the most powerful animals and spirits. This placement ensures they receive the most attention and respect.

Bottom Figures: The Real MVPs

Consider the Haida totem poles. The Haida are a Native American tribe from the Pacific Northwest. Haida poles often feature the most crucial figures at the base. For example, the “Wasgo” or sea-wolf appears at the bottom. The sea-wolf symbolizes strength and bravery. Placing it at the bottom highlights its importance to the Haida people.

The Tlingit people also follow this practice. The Tlingit often carve their most important clan crests at the bottom. A bear or raven at the base signifies respect and honor. This positioning shows that these animals play a crucial role in their cultural stories and beliefs.

Another example is the Kwakwaka’wakw totem poles. The Kwakwaka’wakw carve poles that tell family histories. The most critical ancestors or animals are at the bottom. This placement ensures that viewers first see the most important elements of the family’s story.

Totem Pole Misunderstandings

Why do people get it wrong? Western culture often values the top position. People assume the highest point signifies the most importance. In many hierarchies, like corporate structures, the top position means power and authority. This mindset leads to the misunderstanding of totem poles.

Movies and media also perpetuate this myth. Hollywood often shows the top of the totem pole as the prime spot. This depiction misleads people into thinking that the top is the best. Understanding totem poles requires setting aside these assumptions.

The term “low man on the totem pole” is misleading too. It implies that being at the bottom means less importance. In reality, being at the bottom of a totem pole often means holding great significance. This phrase does a disservice to the true meaning and cultural importance of totem poles.

Embracing the Correct Perspective

We need to respect and understand Indigenous cultures better. Recognizing the true structure of totem poles is a start. This knowledge honors the cultural practices and beliefs of the tribes that create these poles.

Next time you see a totem pole, take a closer look. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Appreciate the figures at the base. They are often the key to understanding the story and significance of the pole. Respect the carvers’ intentions and the cultural meanings behind each figure.

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Source: “Totem Pole” — The Canadian Encyclopedia


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