The Real Story of Tiki Totem Poles as Ancestry Preservation

Carved Wooden Tiki Totem Pole | Benjamin Clapp

We are used to the words “totem pole” to mean those long poles with carved figures on them. Usually we see totem poles with wings from birds or other animals. But in the Pacific islands, these pole structures are called Tiki poles or Tiki totem poles.

Tiki totem poles from the islands of the Pacific hold a rich history and tradition of the native people.  Many house symbols and likenesses of the gods, and many are symbolic of a family or clan. An animal, human, or supernatural being may be carved into the Tiki pole. Usually made of different types of wood, these poles often would indicate family or tribe membership. Placed at the boundary lines of tribal grounds, the Tiki poles often marked where one territory began and another ended.

Early explorers to the islands believed the Tiki pole held a mystic story, but this was not the case. They were not worshipped. They did not protect the village. But more in reality, the Tiki pole expressed an aspect of the relationship with their ancestors.

Therefore, the Tiki totem poles were not religious icons, as some of the first missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands believed.  Some of those missionaries destroyed a percentage of the Tiki poles fearing they were objects of worship. And while some did have representations of the gods, they usually contained information about family or tribal history carved in the shapes. The Tiki pole was a way of keeping records.  

Some Tiki totem poles were saved by hiding them in caves and by the sheer determination of the native people to preserve their culture and to defend their history. The original Hawaiian Tiki poles are now located on sacred grounds and in museums.

There is also an Alaskan connection to these Tiki totem poles. The Tlingit tribe of the Northwest Shores of Canada and Alaska have totem poles dating farther back in their history. Some of their totem poles are very similar to that of the Tiki poles in Hawaii. The Tlingit Tribe was thought to have traveled to the South Pacific at one time and to have shared customs and skills back and forth with the Hawaiians. Further proof of these travels was presented with the discovery of a Tlingit totem pole found in Hawaii. This totem pole was later returned to Alaska.   

There is also a myth about the expression “lowest man on the totem pole” comes from the native people. But this is not true. The actual value of a person or animal was not due to placement on the totem pole.

The only way to truly interpret a totem pole or a Tiki totem pole is to actually know the history of the tribe or native who carved the structure. There are people who have studied and know about the island people.

If you visit Hawaii, maybe try to skip the usual tourist day and find out more about the state of Hawaii and its beginnings. The background of the Hawaiian people is interesting and will give you more insight about Tiki and Tiki carvings. Tiki Poles have been copied and that’s ok. Maybe think of how you would make a Tiki totem Pole to represent your family.  

If you are not a woodworker. Go to your local hardware store and purchase a wooden pole. You can get as creative as you want with the shape. These poles can be found in the porch rails and the wooden post section. Then find a wooden base and strong screws. Attach the post to the base and viola’!

Now, you have a pole to paint with your family symbols or history. You can draw and paint favorite pets, hobbies, family members, or occupations. It’s your history and you can do your totem pole however you choose. Use outdoor paint or spray your work with a protective coat to protect. Place in your garden and you have a family totem pole with your history.