Why is this totem pole traveling across America?

Indigenous people along North America’s Pacific Northwest coast have been carving and erecting totem poles for hundreds of years. But the poles—long used to commemorate ancestry, relay cultural values, or tell stories—rarely go on road trips. 

That’s what happening this summer, as a 25-foot-long, 4,900-pound length of cedar travels from Washington State to Washington, D.C., aboard a jumbo tractor-trailer. Created by the Lummi people, who live near Bellingham, Washington, the richly decorated pole is meant to raise awareness about Indigenous issues and the need to protect sacred sites. 

The two-week tour, dubbed the Red Road to D.C., will stop at endangered Indigenous sites including the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. The totem pole will arrive in D.C. on July 29 and will be displayed in front of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) for two days; organizers hope to attract the attention of President Joseph Biden and find a permanent home for it in the nation’s capital.

Along the way, a team of about a dozen volunteers traveling with the pole will facilitate education sessions, blessings, and other outreach activities. “The pole is an active use of art,” says Jewell Se Sealth James, a Lummi master carver who helped to create it. “Not only do people come out to see it, we travel to them. It’s not to just entertain but to make you aware.”

Totem pole diplomacy like this is a relatively new phenomenon: the Lummi House of Tears Carvers, of which James is a member, has only been making poles and taking them on tour for about 30 years. The group brought a pole to New York City just after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a sign of mourning and solidarity. But totem poles, and the symbolism and cultural richness they represent, have impressed people, both Indigenous and not, for generations. Here’s why.

What is a totem pole?

Totem poles mean something different to each tribal nation, says Doug “Yaa nak.ch” Chilton, a master carver from Alaska’s Tlingit of the Raven moiety, Beaver Clan, House of the Raven. All of them tell stories or offer up messages. “Some poles document notable events or celebrate a person’s achievements,” Chilton says. “Others contain remains of the dead.” 

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Generally made of cedar, they soar from about 10 feet tall to more than 60 feet tall. Historians believe the golden era of totem carving was the 19th century, when money from trading with trappers and other colonists enabled Indigenous people to invest in finer tools and displays of wealth. 

Totem poles are customarily displayed outside Indigenous homes or settlements. You generally won’t see antique ones outdoors, though; it’s considered part of the pole’s life cycle for it to rot away over time. But travelers can find newer ones at Pacific Northwest greenspaces such as Stanley Park, in Vancouver, Canada (however, the appropriateness of the totem poles here have been much debated) and the Klawock Totem Park in Klawock, Alaska. Older examples and artistic totem poles can be seen at museums including NMAI, Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology, and Seattle’s Burke Museum.

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Although many Northwest clans have worked to reclaim the totem poles of their ancestors, in the 19th and early-20th century, totem poles were burned, stolen, chopped down, or generally disrespected by colonizers and non-Indigenous people. “Missionaries and government officials opposed them as part of spiritual traditions antithetical to Christianity, or as part of political systems inimical to their interests,” says Linc Kesler, professor of First Nations Studies at the University of British Columbia. 

One pole was even stolen from a Tlinget village by legendary Hollywood actor John Barrymore, who was sailing by on his yacht in 1931. It was finally repatriated in 2015, but not before it was cut into three pieces, used as a movie prop, and turned into a lawn ornament.

What do those symbols mean?

The animal figures commonly used on totems—wide-eyed eagles, toothy bears—function like family crests, representing aspects of a given clan’s history or status. Contemporary carvers often riff on these tradition with so-called story poles that mesh traditional and modern symbols to make political statements or highlight Indigenous issues.

(Indigenous imagery is all around us, while its people are often forgotten.)

The “Red Road” pole currently on its way to D.C. is designed to spotlight current crises faced by Indigenous communities. A baby locked inside a cage represents children whose human rights are violated; red handprints symbolize missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Beka Economopoulos, the founding director of the Natural History Museum, a pop-up cultural organization, assisted with the “Red Road” project. In a partnership with the Lummi carvers, she put together an exhibit about the journey and totem poles, Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line, on display at the National Museum of the American Indian through September 9.  

“Poles are a beacon or a call to all of us to safeguard what it is that we need to pass down to future generations,” says Economopoulos. “They are a monument to a way of relating to land that predates colonialism and capitalism, and that is the only path forward in this time of environmental crisis.”

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