Talking Totems

Posted on July 19, 2016

Northwest Coast artist Andy Everson shares the history and significance of the art

With a Master’s degree in anthropology, and hailing from both the K’ómoks and Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw First Nations, celebrated BC artist Andy Everson is uniquely qualified to teach the importance and background of the art of totem carving. He shared his vast knowledge of the subject recently, following a totem pole tour through Thunderbird Park beside the Royal BC Museum that he gave during the Aboriginal Cultural Festival in Victoria.

“There are a number of different types of totem poles,” he said. “The main type is a crest pole that displays your ancestry and ancestral stories.”

He said often there is a misconception that you can read a particular story just by looking at a totem.

“Really, you need to know the story first to understand the totem pole,” he said. “Totem poles are really a type of mnemonic device that helps remind the viewer about the stories and ancestral stories within a family.”

andy-everson-totem-tou Everson said in addition to the crest poles, there are also mortuary poles (amongst the Haida Gwaii) where remains are positioned at the top of the pole. Totems can also include house posts, which support the structure of a house, and also display the crests of the particular family who resides there.

And the totems are as varied as the different Nations.

“Each tribal area has its own distinctive style,” he said. “And within each region, each artist has their own style.”

Positioning of the totems is also very important.

“Totem poles are always facing the water so people coming to a village can see immediately which family is where by their crests, because when you’re visiting a village, you would know a lot about their family lineage and their clan histories, so you would be able to determine where each family lives,” Everson said.

And whenever a new totem was raised, a feast (or potlatch) was held to celebrate the event.

“It has to be a public event,” he said. “And hosts would pay witnesses to our ceremonies with food and objects.”
For Everson, it’s important to share his knowledge to not only promote awareness, but also to keep these ancient traditions alive.

For more on Everson, go to

Click here for the 5 things you have to know about totem poles infographic!