The Totem Pole

An Intercultural History

Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass

  • paperback not available
  • $49.95 hardcover (9780295989624) Add to Cart
  • Published: 2010
  • Subject Listing: Art History / Native American and Indigenous Art; Native American and Indigenous Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 344 pp., 192 illus., 120 in color, 8.50 x 11 in.
  • Territorial rights: N/A in Canada
  • Contents

The Northwest Coast totem pole captivates the imagination. From the first descriptions of these tall carved monuments, totem poles have become central icons of the Northwest Coast region and symbols of its Native inhabitants. Although many of those who gaze at these carvings assume that they are ancient artifacts, the so-called totem pole is a relatively recent artistic development, one that has become immensely important to Northwest Coast people and has simultaneously gained a common place in popular culture from fashion to the funny pages.

The Totem Pole reconstructs the intercultural history of the art form in its myriad manifestations from the eighteenth century to the present. Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass analyze the totem pole's continual transformation since Europeans first arrived on the scene, investigate its various functions in different contexts, and address the significant influence of colonialism on the proliferation and distribution of carved poles. The authors also describe their theories on the development of the art form: its spread from the Northwest Coast to world's fairs and global theme parks; its integration with the history of tourism and its transformation into a signifier of place; the role of governments, museums, and anthropologists in collecting and restoring poles; and the part that these carvings have continuously played in Native struggles for control of their cultures and their lands.

Short essays by scholars and artists, including Robert Davidson, Bill Holm, Richard Hunt, Nathan Jackson, Vickie Jensen, Andrea Laforet, Susan Point, Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Lyle Wilson, and Robin Wright, provide specific case studies of many of the topics discussed, directly illustrating the various relationships that people have with the totem pole.

Aldona Jonaitis is director emerita of the University of Alaska Museum of the North and professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. An art historian who has published widely on Native American art, she is the author of Art of the Northwest Coast and Looking North: Art from the University of Alaska Museum, among other titles.

"This is a book about totem poles throughout their history and the consequences of their global diaspora. It is thus a global anthropological and art historical study. . . . This volume is everything you always wanted to know about totem poles, and more!"
-Nelson Graburn, Pacific Historical Review, February 2012

"In The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History, Jonaitis and Glass trace the permutations of form and perceptions this iconic form of Northwest Coast art has undergone over the last 200-odd years. They weigh questions of authenticity, misinterpretation, appropriation, denigration, and, ultimately, transformation at the hands of contemporary Native artists.... The range and depth of this handsomely illustrated book should make it the definitive study of the totem pole... that is, until artists push this living tradition in yet another unforeseen direction."
-City Living, The Seattle Times

"A big, beautiful book that takes on the subject seriously but interestingly."
-City Living, City Living

"Writing a poem is like trying to describe a totemic column which passes right through and beyond the world. We see it, but its existence is elsewhere."
-Stanley Diamond, Totems


1. Excursions: Toward an Intercultural Biography of the Totem Pole

Part One Totem Poles in the Colonial Imagination
2. On Commerce and Cultures: Explorers and Merchants Encounter Carved Columns
3. The Dynamics of Settler Colonialism, the Rise and Fall of Totem Poles, and the Emergence of Anthropology
4. "Places of Totemic Delight": Significant Sights / Sites on the Northwest Coast
5. Totems for Tourists: On Salvage and Salvation
6. The Expansion of Totem Pole Form: Minis, Maxis, and Multiples (or, the Small, the Tall, and the Kitschy)

Part Two The Global Circulation of Totem Poles
7. Transforming Emblems at Museums and Expositions: Poles in the Global Village
8. "Monuments in Multichrome": Totem Poles and the Promotion of Place
9. Beyond Restoration: The Work of Wilson Duff
10. High Art from Rainy Places: The "Renaissance" of Totem Carving

Part Three Current Cultures of the Totem Pole
11. Beyond Fairs: Contemporary Cultural Tourism and Ethnokitsch
12. Family Trees and Tribal Treaties: On the Politics of Poles
13. Totem Poles and the Mediation of Colonial Encounter

Appendix A. A Selected and Annotated List of Books on Totem Poles
Appendix B. Primary Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Reports of Monumental Carvings on the Northwest Coast (1778-1900)
Appendix C. A Selection of Early Illustrations of Totem Poles and Major Photographic Expeditions (1778-1900)
Appendix D. A Selective List of Poles Collected or Commissioned for Destinations Abroad (1880-1970)
Appendix E. A Selection of Totem Poles at Regional, National and International Expositions (1876-1994)
Appendix F. A Selection of Totem Poles at British Columbian and Canadian Celebrations
Appendix G. A Selection of Poles Raised in or for Native Communities (1957-1988)


"An essential work, one that will surely serve as a model for other explorations of material culture in contexts of interethnic encounter."
-Francis Goicovich, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Fall 2011

"Jonaitis and Glass invigorate the history and analysis of Northwest Coast totem poles with a neomodernist discussion of how cultural interaction unfolds as a dialogue between groups."
-Daniel Monteith, Alaska History, Fall 2011

"This richly illustrated, highly accessible, and thoroughly researched volume has made an important contribution to the study of totem poles, Northwest Coast art and culture, museum studies, and the history of anthropology."
-American Anthropologist

"An informative, thought provoking, and beautifully illustrated collection of essays by art historian Aldona Jonaitis and anthropologist Aaron Glass. Not only does the book present solid scholarship, its contents clearly are the result of the authors' genuine affection for their subject matter."
-Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources

"Although there are a number of books on totem poles... this book stands alone in adding the influence of non-Native and non-Northwest Coast individuals to the development and use of totem poles as monuments and as icons. Valuable for an academic audience, the book is readily accessible to general readers, as most theoretical ideas are concisely and clearly discussed in footnotes. The variegated and constantly shifting uses and meanings of the totem pole icon are truly incredible. Highly recommended."

"Words like seminal, definitive, and encyclopedic are bound to accrue to The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History.... Widely researched and richly illustrated, this big, beautiful book tells us why we find images of totem poles on everything from fridge magnets and Frisbees to back scratchers and Boy Scout badges."
-Georgia Straight

"The defining take on this fascinating subject."
-Art History Newsletter

"The Totem Pole is a visually rich, gracefully written cultural biography."
-The Book Monger

"Recommendation: For anybody interested in Native American art."
-Birdbooker Report