Kwakiutl totem pole, c. 1981
Like many First Nations people, the Kwakiutl were decimated by diseases that were brought to North America when white settlers from Europe moved into the areas that are now British Columbia and Washington State. Although in 1929 there were only about 1000 Kwakiutl people left, currently there are around 4000 First Nations people of Kwakiutl descent.
Each of the symbols carved into a totem pole has a special meaning or significance, just as each symbol within a coat of arms or a state seal has a special meaning or significance. As this photograph shows, Regina’s “Kwakiutl” pole features a Thunderbird on top with a person below. The Thunderbird is the great lord of the Sky Realm. Thunderbirds often carry out wars in the Sky Realm that people cannot perceive: all that humans see of these wars are lightning; all that humans hear of these wars is thunder. Thunderbird can also make himself invisible and appear as a great wind. This figure is an especially appropriate image to grace the top of a totem pole in Saskatchewan, which is famous for its summer thunderstorms and great winds!
Totem poles are most commonly found in British Columbia and the northwest part of the United States. (Other cultures around the world do make totem pole-like objects, such as the tikis of the people of the Pacific Islands. However, these tikis are part of a form of ancestor worship, which is not true of North American totem poles.)
Some of the oldest totem poles in Canada and the United States date back 150 years. Often poles were commissioned for special events or as part of clan celebrations. Today, although there are many people who still carve totem poles, carving a new totem pole is an extremely expensive project – one pole costs between $100,000 and $250,000! As a consequence, totem poles are now usually only commissioned as part of very special celebrations.