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  • Writer's picturemarti mcginnis

Create A Totem Pole Sketch For Your Mood

These days I'm doing what I can to keep my creative juices flowing and my sanity intact. One way to do this is to reach deep inside and find images and thoughts that are helping me cope.

I decided to do a project based on the time honored art of designing a totem pole with my cohorts in my Creativity Club. I did a little research and discovered that genuine totem poles have to be carved from cedar trees by a descendent of the native people that invented them. They draw on a rich heritage of symbols that are largely inspired by the main animals that inhabit the Pacific Northwest region.

Totem Poles typical of the people of the Pacific Northwest

Where a symbol is placed on a totem pole has meaning, but being the "low man on the totem pole" is not something lesser. Nope, that symbol is usually considered a foundational element. Often a family of some wealth (it takes means to hire a master carver and his assistants, and they must be treated well and with great respect during the duration of the carving process) will have a totem pole made.

Traditionally, animals, depictions of spirits and other esoterics will be the main components of the imagery. For our exercise today, I invited the participants to assemble sketches of symbols currently meaningful to them, including those of their spirit animal(s) if they have any as well as other icons that are bobbing through their thoughts today. They then took these ideas and stacked them up into a drawing of a totem pole that bears meaning to them today. In some ways this is an excellent way to record thoughts and moods that will convey some of the nuances of the day's feelings in ways completely different from other journaling techniques.

Common Interpretations of Various Animals

Eagle: Many believe the eagle to be the most useful animal because it can fly higher than other birds. The eagle is considered extremely intelligent and is able to spot trouble in advance by soaring high in the sky.

Thunderbird: This is a mythological creature with the power to create lightning with the blink of its eye and thunder by beating its wings. The thunderbird can also be invisible and create violent gusts of wind.

Bear: The bear is believed to teach natives to forage for berries and hunt wild salmon. The bear also comes to their aid in battle.

Owl: This bird represents the souls of the deceased.

Wolf: The wolf is considered very powerful. It also represents those who take care of the sick and needy.

Raven: One of the most commonly used symbols in Alaska, along with wolf, the raven is well-liked for his trickery. Despite being perceived as corrupt and hungry, the raven is the subject of more than 90 stories.

Frog: The frog is believed to bring wealth and great fortune.

More Info


The Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole Video


How To Identify Your Spirit Animals

  • What is your favorite animal?

  • Is there an animal that appears to you a lot?

  • Has anyone said you remind them of an animal?

  • Do you ever dream of an animal?


A sample sketch from the project

Totem Pole Mood Sketch

Top to bottom: Flying Heart - is the symbol of where I live in Mexico, San Miguel de Allende

Horse - important spirit animal for me

Strawberry - my spirit fruit, it depicts fragility, deliciousness and special days

Star and Moon - That there are greater forces at play than just those of this earth

Triangle - The three sides to every story between individuals, yours, mine and the unfiltered truth

An Olive - Celebration in sustenance

The Earth with much stormy weather - Current events

The Black Panther - the embodiment of strength and hope for the #BlackLivesMatter movement as embodied so well by Chadwick Boseman who died several days ago.

Fire - The struggle



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