Totem Pole

About this object

History of use

Free standing totem poles such as this were usually memorial or commemorative poles erected in honour of a person who had died, usually by the successor to his name. The beings represented on Kwakwaka'wakw totem poles are those beings from mythical times who became, or were encountered by, the ancestors of those being commemorated, whose family claimed the figures as crests. Crests could also be obtained as marriage gifts.


Commissioned by Kwaxalanukwame’ (Chief John Drabble) to stand in front of his house in Alert Bay, this pole was the first to be carved by Mungo Martin. Barbeau notes said that the pole was raised at a big potlatch given by Kwaxalanukwame John Drabble. When Mungo restored this pole at UBC around 1950, he also carved the raven that now sits at the top; it replaced an earlier version of the bird with outspread wings. The pole once stood outside at Totem Pole Park, UBC campus. It was re-located inside the Museum's Great Hall c. 1975.

Cultural context

status; ceremonial

Iconographic meaning

Raven in Kwakwaka'wakw sculpture is usually represented with a long straight beak, slightly squared or rounded at the tip. Sea lions are usually represented with rounded snouts, elongated bodies, and flippers. Bear is usually shown with squared snout and ears, flared nostrils, and fierce teeth. He is shown here biting a copper, an object representing great wealth and social value. Crest figures from top to bottom: Gwa’wina (Raven), T’łix’an (Sea lion), with bird and human in tail flippers, Gala (Crown-of-the-Dog Grizzly Bear), biting a copper Yak̓ant̓akw (Speaking-through Man).

Physical description

Wood pole carved in high relief, with separate pieces attached. Crest figures from top to bottom: Gwa’wina (raven); T'lix’an (sea lion), with bird and human in tail flippers; Gala (crown-of-the-dog grizzly bear), biting a copper; Yakantakw (speaking-through man). Entire surface is painted in black, white, red and green.