Totem poles are typically red cedar poles found among the First Nations along the Pacific coast of North America. They are an offshoot of the idea of the totem.
The totem is a symbol of a spiritual ancestor for a group in aboriginal Australia and North America, and usually takes the form of an animal or sacred plant. And totemistic beliefs are found in Africa, Arabia, Asia, Europe, and the Arctic.¹
Totem poles, on the other hand, may depict spiritual ancestors but they are not limited to that. The animal and spirit-being carvings on the poles usually appear at grave sites or as house posts. They may signify important persons, events and privileges. Totem poles are also heraldic and likened to the crest (e.g. the Polish Eagle) and they often provide a genealogical record.
In some cultures totem poles recount popular legends or boast of shamanic powers. Other totem poles are mostly about artistic expression. And the tourism industry knows full well that they can help bring in revenue for good causes.
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