Totems are long chunks of wood carved with images of humans and animals that appear to pile on top of each other. For years, Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest have made totems as a way to tell their family stories, commemorate events, or symbolically illustrate a pact. Making a totem is a unique way to tell your own story or to celebrate a special occasion such as an important birthday, anniversary, or graduation. You can also make a totem as an original way to tell a story for a school project. If you want to know how to make a totem pole, read on.
Method 1 of 3: Choosing the Story and Symbols for the Totem Pole
Step 1. Decide what kind of story you want to tell
Some people believed that totems were originally used in religious ceremonies, but the truth is that they were created as a way to preserve and illustrate history. Think of the totem pole that you want to do as a kind of chronology, or a story about a certain family or the life of one person. What story do you want to tell?
- You can tell the adventure story of one person, or you can depict the story of your family by adding a symbol for each family member. You can tell the story of a city, battle, or relationship. Get creative!
- Think about the most important elements of this story. Make a list of every event, personality trait, family member, or other factor that you want to include in your totem pole. The more elements you include, the larger your totem will be. Make at least 5 story elements on your totem pole.
Step 2. Decide what symbols to use to tell your story
Now that you have a list of items to include, what symbol do you want to represent each of them? Traditional totems typically feature carvings of animals as a way to tell their stories. You can take this classic storyline or choose characters that have a personal meaning to you.
If you want to depict animals on your totem pole, you can choose those that are important to you, like your spirit animal, or choose animals that are classically used by totem artists and seem to fit your story. Here are a few animals that are often depicted on traditional totem poles:
- Petrel. This mythical creature has the ability to summon thunder, lightning and strong gusts of wind. You can use it to symbolize a time in your history when chaos reigned.
- Bear. This beloved creature comes to the aid of other people if necessary. Use the bear as a symbol of a caring person or help that came in time.
- Owl. The wise owl is a symbol of souls that have left us. An owl can mean the past as such or a person in your life who died.
- Crow. This cunning, cunning bird is used to symbolize intelligence.
- Wolf. Wolves are symbols of power and loyalty.
- Frog. Frogs are said to bring great happiness, so use this symbol to represent a time of wealth and abundance.
- You can also create your own non-animal symbols. People's faces, buildings in the city, sword, spear and other symbols can be used to help tell your story.
Step 3. Determine the order of the symbols
Your story does not need to be told in chronological order. On the totem pole, the most important symbols or figures are at the bottom of it, because this is how they are best seen by people standing on the ground. Look at the symbols you are using and arrange them in order of importance, placing the most important ones at the bottom of the pillar.
Method 2 of 3: Making a Totem Pole
Step 1. Collect materials for the craft
Traditional totems are hand carved from red or yellow cedar. If you want to make a totem pole that is close to authentic, you can find a large, long piece of wood of this species and carve your symbols in a row on its obverse. However, you can make a good totem pole for yourself or a school project with some simple craft materials. Here's what you need:
- One cylindrical container for each symbol per totem pole. You can use old oatmeal cans, coffee cans, or any other container.
- Brown craft paper.
- Tempura or acrylic paints.
- Hot glue or craft glue.
Step 2. Measure and cut your craft paper
Each jar will be covered with a piece of paper. Measure the height and circumference of one of your jars, then use your ruler to transfer your measurements onto a piece of craft paper. Cut out the measured piece of paper and wrap it around the jar to make sure it fits. Then cut out several sheets of the same size, one for each jar you have.
Step 3. Draw your symbols
Draw one of your symbols on each piece of craft paper. Use a pencil to draw out the outlines of animals, people, or other symbols that you choose to use to tell the story. Keep in mind you will be painting over drawings.
- Look at pictures of authentic Internet totems to get an idea of the style you might want to use. The symbols are usually simple but distinct.
- Many animals are traditionally depicted in profile. Sometimes only the head of an animal or a person is depicted, and sometimes the whole body is depicted.
Step 4. Color in the symbols
Now take your paints and decide what colors you want to use to highlight your drawings. Rich, vibrant hues are traditionally used, although sometimes totems have no colors at all. The most commonly used colors are black, white, red, yellow, and vivid blue. Let the paint dry before continuing.
Step 5. Try adding some unique touches to the symbols
Adding a small amount of gold glitter to a frog, for example, can help illustrate the wealth and good fortune that the animal symbolizes. In addition, you can add finishing touches that make personal sense to you.
- You can stick on beads, shells, small stones, feathers, leaves, and other materials to help you tell your story.
- Pictures, postcards, and other things like that are also good to add if you are making a totem pole to symbolize your family history or any other historical event.
Step 6. Attach the drawings to the jars
Wrap the designs one at a time around the individual cans and seal the seam where they overlap one edge of the paper with a strip of hot glue or craft glue. Hold the edges with your fingers for a few seconds while the glue dries.
Consider covering the top of the can, which will be the top of the totem pole, with a circle of craft paper, or by decorating it differently. This will prevent it from looking empty compared to the rest of the totem pole
Step 7. Place the jars together and glue them together
Use hot glue or craft glue to place the glue ring on the bottom jar lid, then carefully place the next one on top. Continue applying glue to the top jar lid and adding another jar until you're done.
Step 8. Let the totem dry
Leave it in a safe place for a few hours or overnight before handling it again.
Method 3 of 3: Using a Totem Pole
Step 1. Arrange your version of the Potlatch ceremony
In this traditional Native American ceremony, the totem was erected and blessed while the ministers danced and sang. The host of the ceremony gave a gift to everyone present, knowing that someday the benefit would return. The erection of the pillar was accompanied by a great feast and an evening party. If you want to celebrate the meaning of your totem pole, you can host the ceremony yourself.
Step 2. Tell the story of your totem pole
Using the symbols on the totem pole as illustrations, tell the story of the person, family, or event for which you made your totem pole. Describe the meaning of each symbol and how it relates to the story you are telling. Keep the totem pole as a reminder of a little piece of the story it represents.