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Species Spotlight: Arborvitae

Published: 
17 weeks 3 days ago

A closer look at totem poles

A small grove of arborvitae (Thuja plicata), a relative of our native eastern red cedar (Thuja occidentalis), is growing in the northwest corner of our groundcover collection, adjacent to Comstock Knoll.

The arborvitae is common in forests along the coasts of the Pacific Northwest. Throughout history and today, Native American communities from coastal Oregon to southern Alaska have extensively used arborvitae for building houses, canoes, textiles, instruments, utensils, and for crafting totem poles—strong symbols of their cultural identities.

The native people of the Pacific Northwest are from several distinct nations, belonging to seven different language families with many dialects. One of their commonalities is carving totem poles, which are considered storytellers that give people their cultural identity and communicate their beginnings, history, and lineage.

Totem poles serve different purposes. Hilary Stewart, author of Looking at Totem Poles, writes “One example is the memorial pole, found in Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Nuu-chah-nulth and Muzalk villages, stood before the house but was not attached to it. Raised a year or more after the death of a chief, the memorial pole displayed crest and figures that depicted special achievements or events in the deceased person’s family history.”

Stewart noted, “The Nuu-chah-nulth set up a welcome pole near the village beach. This single, larger than life human figure, with arms outstretched, stood near the beach to welcome visitors arriving for a feast or potlatch.”

Over time a new category of pole has emerged—the commercial pole—commissioned from sources outside the culture, such as government agencies, private individuals or corporations.

Almost without exception, totem poles are carved from arborvitae. It takes a specialized technique to harvest the tree and a great deal of preparation to raise a finished totem pole. Artist-carvers are commissioned to shape figures and objects into the tree. A whole host of supernatural beings have become the crests of various northwest coast peoples, which are described in Stewart’s book, a reputable source for learning more about totem poles. The author details and interprets the figures and crests found on 110 totem poles accessible to the public in communities of the Pacific Northwest.