National Geographic : 1945 Jan
Indians of Our North Pacific Coast Canadian Department of Mines Trimmed with Feathers, a Tsimshian Headdress Ornament Is Inlaid with Abalone Shell For rituals, a chief or dancer wore it, not over the face, but above the head. Eyebrows are paint; eyes are shell. Pacific coast tribes cut, polished, and perforated the abalone's beautiful shell (Plate I). One man carved on his pole a representation of the Tsar of Russia, to commemorate the sale of Alaska to the United States. Con siderable latitude was allowed the owner in selecting his subject matter. There was nothing sacred or religious about totem poles. They represented the owner's claim to fame and were a means of display ing to the public his prestige and social standing. They had about the same signifi cance to him as a paragraph in the social register would have to a member of the "four hundred" in our own society. The actual carving was done by profes sional artists, who were well paid. For easy handling, the backs of the large poles were usually hollowed out. Time and place of origin of the totem pole are still somewhat obscure. There can be little doubt that it developed as an integral part of the specialized art and elaborate social sys tem of the Northwest Coast tribes, which had its greatest center of growth in the general region of Dixon Entrance. Probably the first totem poles were erected in the region of the lower Nass River among the Tsimshian, or among the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Descriptions of totem poles begin to occur in the writings of travelers about the year 1790, at which time a few poles were standing in some of the Haida villages. It is probable that the custom did not begin much before this date.