Totem Poles are a kind of sculpture that are hand carved from large hardwood trees, like cedar. They are a cultural artifact of the natives of North America. A totem is a wood carving that depicts some body's extended kinship. And they are often treated as a family heirloom, just like silk ties made in England. Older totems are museum pieces and the oldest totem residing in a museum is dated to 1880. It is believed that there were very few totems before 1880, according to the anecdotes of European visitors to the Americas. According to the Europeans, back then the totems were smaller and much fewer than the totems we see today.
What a Totem Looks Like
Totems are carved from a single tree trunk. They look like head figures of animals or faces of people. Sometimes the faces of people on totem poles look half human and half animal. The native American cultures incorporate nature into their everyday beliefs which reflects in their art. Totem poles will have figures represent characters in a legend, members of a clan, or even important events. But there are also totem poles that are artistic creations and do not have a story at all. A totem poles can also be a grave with each totem figure hiding a grave box. And still some totems are less serious and stand for reminders of debts, quarrels and other shameful things that the creator of the totem would like to put on public display.
The Meaning of the Brown Bear Totem
The brown bear is most likely the grizzly bear who are also indigenous to North America. The grizzly bear is a top predator who are large, intelligent and sometimes devious. They will intimidate other predators like wolves but are also excellent hunters themselves. Bears depend on their strength more than their speed, but they can also pretty fast for short distances. While they hunt, they are not above scavenging or stealing food from other animals including humans. North Americans admire the bear for their strength and will often have the bear symbolize strength and courage. So it is only fitting that the brown bear be used as an important figure on the totem pole. The brown bear could be a part of an old legend or they could symbolize a member of the clan who has done something very brave.
How Totem Poles are Created
There are still artists whose livelihood is totem pole carving. Many totem poles are created on commission and the artists who specialize in carving totem poles have apprenticed from somebody to learn how to carve totem poles the traditional way. This is why most totem poles are still made using traditional methods with no or very little help from modern tools. First a scaffolding is made then the trunk of a cedar tree is erected with ropes by several men. Ropes are used to secure the trunk to beams to keep it upright while it is being carved. Completion of the pole along with payment of the artist is also done in the old ways.