The Low Man on the Totem Pole

This entry was posted Friday, 14 May, 2010 at 12:52 am

Hey there folks. Here I am with yet another school assignment for your perusal. I thought I’d put it in the blog for two reasons. First, I thought the subject matter was a pretty cool piece of trivia. Those of you who know me are aware that random trivia is kind of my “thing”. I’m the guy who likes to toss out the occasional completely obscure piece of information that usually only slightly pertains to anything that is being discussed. It’s my gift…and my curse. Secondly…my mother told me to. ‘Nuff said. As always…comments are welcome and appreciated. Thanks!

When a person thinks of the American Indian, certain images often pop into their heads. One might think of a raven-haired warrior speeding along on a painted horse, or a group of chanting natives dancing circles around a crackling bonfire. These images hold an air of mystery and legend, often making an appearance in artwork and film to this day. When one considers the art of the American Indian however, the image that most often comes to mind is that of the totem pole. It has even made its way into our language in the form of the phrase “low man on the totem pole.” It is meant to signify a person who has the least power and prestige in a given group. However, the fact of the matter is, being the low man on the totem pole is actually a great place to be!

To prove this point it is important to learn the history and process behind the creation of these works of art. Nobody really knows when the first totem poles were created, but archaeologists believe they started becoming more common in the late 1700’s when colonists from Europe first began to arrive in the Americas. Early explorers actually viewed them as evil and felt that they were a part of some form of idol worship. Ironically, it was the arrival of the explorers that caused totem poles to become more common. The tools that the more technologically savvy Europeans brought with them were much more sophisticated than the tools that the carvers had been using to that point, so the construction of the poles was made much easier.

The purpose of a totem pole is to tell the story of the person who commissioned the creation of the pole, describing the history and wealth of the owner and his family. The images are meant to symbolize important ancestors or events from the past. The commission of a pole is often a source of pride for the owner and brings with it a great deal of prestige and honor.

Creating a totem pole is a process which is deeply rooted in tradition. It wasn’t just anybody in the tribe who was allowed to make an official totem pole. It involved the use of a master carver who was held in high regard in the tribe. The creation of a pole could take months, and during this time the head carver would stay with the family of the owner. Their job was to make sure the master carver was kept comfortable and happy. If the accommodations weren’t satisfactory, the carver would often use the images in the pole to shame the owner.

The master carver would often utilize two or more junior carvers to assist him in the pole’s creation. These junior carvers often worked on the sections of the pole where detail was least important. The master carver, however, would work on the most visible sections of the totem pole, particularly the bottom six to eight feet. This is the section that people admiring the pole would have the most access to. Naturally the master carver would also be in charge of the most important images on the pole. These are the figures which symbolized the power and status of the owner. Thus, the prospect of being the “low man on the totem pole” was actually considered an honor among the wealthiest of Native Americans.

It is interesting to think that such a common phrase can be so conceptually inaccurate. One would have to wonder what the master totem pole carvers centuries ago would think of the way we have mischaracterized their work. With the recent resurgence in the popularity of authentic totem poles, it may be possible to change this perception by educating people of the true meaning of this phrase. Therefore, it would behoove all people to go out and strive to become low man on the totem pole!

5 Comments to The Low Man on the Totem Pole

  1. Auntie Dee says:

    May 14th, 2010 at 8:19 am

    This really was enlightening, Chris! Like the majority of people, I thought that the term, “Low man on the totem pole” was quite the opposite of what it was originally intented to relay. It makes sense. In the totem, the lowest person is the one who carries the weight of all the others who are carved into it. I wonder how we ever misinterpreted it, the lowest figure on the totem pole, as being the antithesis of what it was created to be. Hmmm!

  2. Tammi says:

    May 14th, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Very nicely written, Chris. Yet again, something that has never crossed my mind is written by you. I’m constantly saying I’m low man on the Totem Pole. Should I start saying Top Man now?

  3. scott says:

    May 15th, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    As Tammi said, it was written well.. and it is very interesting how often, we as a people, often misinterperate saying and/or change them all together..sometimes the beginning of a story is just as important as the end!

  4. Dad says:

    May 19th, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    About time we got another chapter in your blog! Interesting subject matter, well written, and enlightening. I live in between a number of reservations and have seen a few totems, but even though I knew they were important to the family, and sometimes tribes, I never knew the relationship to the term “low man on the totem pole” Once again grasshopper, the student educates the master!

  5. Karen says:

    July 8th, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Nicely written and well informed Chris. I said this saying last week and was really wondering what it meant. I use to hear my Dad tell me this growing up. LOL! You did your research and three cheers to you. I feel better now. :)

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