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Appendix: Documenting First Nations Cultures

Northwest Coast First Nations are famous for their totem poles—monumental objects that are typically carved from a single red cedar tree. All groups on the north Pacific coast, from the Coast Salish in Puget Sound to the Tlingit in southeast Alaska, practised this art form.

Totem poles typically record the histories of chiefly families and the greater community. The poles have many purposes: to record real and mythic histories, display ancestral crests, celebrate marriages, memorialize the dead, define territorial claims and welcome guests to feasts and potlatches. Most carved images on totem poles are crest figures. They show the animal, human and supernatural ancestors of a family. The rituals involved in constructing and erecting totem poles are ancient and complex.

Totem poles are made of wood, usually Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), and are carved by a master carver assisted by apprentices. In early times totem poles were traditionally painted with bright, durable pigments derived from minerals, burnt and pulverized clamshells and charcoal, and mixed in a medium of crushed salmon eggs. In the late historic period, commercial oil-based paints replaced the naturally occurring pigments and provided a broader palette of colour.

When a pole is erected, a designated speaker gives a detailed account of the meaning and history of each figure depicted on the pole. The pole is then validated at a feast or potlatch where guests witness the event and the claims of the host chief; the witnesses are then paid with food and gifts to confirm the transactions.

First Nations communities continue to erect and dedicate totem poles for traditional purposes. In addition, many poles are now commissioned by governments, corporations, cultural institutions and individual collectors.

Welcome pole: Usually a single standing figure, often with outstretched arms, erected in front of the host's house to welcome guests to ceremonial events.

Memorial pole: Erected in front of a house or at a gravesite and featuring the primary crests of a deceased chief. The pole is usually dedicated by his successor at a memorial potlatch held a year or more after his death. Alternatively, a single human figure, often representing the deceased, may be erected beside a gravesite.

Mortuary pole: A pole about 6 metres (20 feet) high. A mortuary pole of the Haida and Tlingit contains a cavity at the top in which the coffin of a high-ranking chief is placed. Crest figures may decorate the column and the rectangular plaque that covers the burial niche.

Interior house posts: The four main structural supports for the framework of the great cedar post-and-beam houses of the Northwest Coast, often decorated with crest figures. The posts support huge beams, which in turn support the rafters and roof planks.

House frontal poles: Poles placed against the façade of a house. These may include a ceremonial entranceway at or near ground level.

Potlatch figure: A potlatch figure may be placed permanently in front of an owner's house or erected temporarily during a potlatch. It may indicate the privileges transferred at a marriage, symbolize orators, depict the host, ridicule a rival, represent an ancestor or account for the goods to be given away as gifts to the assembled witnesses.