Originally, totem poles were carved using bone tools. These were difficult to use, so traditional carvings were fairly simple.
But when non-Native Americans came to the Northwest, they gave Native Americans metal tools that sliced through cedar smoothly and easily. These tools freed artists to create more and more elaborate figures.
They used them to dig out the faces of thunderbirds, whales, grizzly bears, ravens, and other creatures, one on top of each other, until the entire pole was covered. The artist then painted the carvings using dyes made from vegetables. The most popular colors were red, black, and white.
Erecting a finished totem pole was hard work and sometimes involved hundreds of people. First, the crowd dug a deep pit into the ground where the bottom of the pole would sit.
Next, they tied ropes to the top of the pole as it lay on the ground. After moving the pole’s bottom next to the pit, they slowly pulled on the ropes until the pole stood upright.
They then stuffed the pit tight with rocks and dirt until the totem pole was held firmly in place.