Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

Whose Pole is Bigger?

Measuring Your Totem

Native American lore suggests that it is bad luck to claim to possess the largest totem pole. Despite this, a friendly competition has sprung up between the United States and Canada over which country is home to the world’s largest totem. Calculating size should be simple, but criteria vary so wildly from one place to the next, the fact of the matter is: it couldn’t be harder.

In order for a totem to be considered authentic, it must be erected by Native American craftsmen from southeastern Alaska, coastal British Columbia or northern Washington. (In rare cases, non-Native apprentices who are approved by qualifying tribes can become sanctioned totem artists.) The pole must be carved from a single piece of wood and represent Native traditions. Once completed, the totem must be erected according to tribal conventions and secured by elders who ceremonially bless the new pole.

Despite the popular expression, being “the low man on the totem pole” is actually an honour: it is the head carver himself who works on the bottom ten feet of the pole, as this is the area that will be at eye level.

These strict authenticity requirements create problems for the first of the World’s Largest Totem Pole contenders. For those who measure size simply in feet, the 173-foot totem of Alert Bay, British Columbia, is the clear-cut winner, as it stands 33 feet higher than any other pole in North America. Unfortunately, though, the pole was built in pieces that were then joined together, one stacked on top of the other. According to totem tradition, that’s cheating.

Authentic totems have their own set of problems. In 1956, Victoria, British Columbia, hoisted the world’s tallest freestanding totem. Carved by Kwakiutl tribal chief Mungo Martin from a single piece of wood, the pole stood 127 feet 7 inches tall. Over the years, though, Martin’s pole rotted from the inside out and by July 2000 it had reached such a state of decay that it had to be taken down. But the residents of Victoria cried out for the pole to “rise again,” and after great community effort and a whole lot of epoxy, Mungo’s beloved pole stood tall once more in October 2001.

Victoria seems to have little luck with large poles. The Spirit of Lekwammen totem located there once stood 180 feet, 3 inches tall. Raised in 1994 for the Commonwealth Games, the pole was even officially designated Tallest Totem Pole by the Guinness Book of World Records. But alas, the pole no longer exists in one piece. In 1997, it was dismantled because of safety concerns and it seems unlikely that it will ever be resurrected.

With Alert Bay and Victoria out of the running, the clear titleholder appears to be Kalama, Washington. Its pole is 140 feet tall, properly sanctioned and debate-free. Native American craftsman Chief Don Lelooska created and carved it from a single piece of wood. Respecting the traditions of Native American culture, the totem stands proudly on blessed grounds. (Not to be a stickler for authenticity, but is a grassy knoll in a commercial boat marina really what ancestral Natives defined as “blessed”?)

But before declaring Kalama the winner, consider for a moment whether it is the size of the pole or what one does with it that matters most.

For instance, Totem Pole Park in Foyil, Oklahoma, also lays claim to the title of World’s Largest Totem Pole. Back in 1937, local Ed Galloway began work on a totem pole that stands 90 feet tall and is 18 feet wide at the base. Using twenty-eight tons of cement, six tons of steel and one hundred tons of salvaged sand, rock and glass, he created intricately sculpted animals and Native chiefs. It took Ed eleven years to finish the project, working alone on nights and weekends. He said he built the totem so he would have something to look at in his retirement and so that local youngsters could visit and enjoy his creation.

When Ed asked his wife what she thought of the finished pole, she replied with a variation on Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees”: “Totem poles are made by fools like thee, but only God can make a tree.” Ed promptly retaliated, gathering his leftover materials and crafting a 12-foot concrete tree trunk, complete with holes for birds.

While Ed’s totem is not the tallest, nor the most authentic entry of the bunch, credit is certainly due for his accomplishment. Ed may have stood only 5 feet 7 inches tall, and his towering concrete totem a mere nine stories, but the man certainly thought big.

The dispute over the title of World’s Largest Totem Pole seems unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Although everyone’s a winner in some respects, there is no doubt that the world’s thickest totem belongs to Duncan, British Columbia. Made from a single ancient cedar tree by Native American craftspeople, it measures a whopping six feet in diameter.

In the end, no matter which claim you choose to support, one thing remains clear: how to measure a totem pole is a subjective art. Size may matter most to some folks, but for
others, the most important thing is good technique. Yes, indeed.