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Some poles celebrate cultural beliefs that may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events, while others are mostly artistic.

Animals and other characters carved on the pole are typically used as symbols to represent characters or events in a story; however, some may reference the moiety of the pole’s owner, The carved figures interlock, one above the other, to create the overall design, which may rise to a height of sixty feet or more.

Given the complexity and symbolic meanings of totem pole carvings, their placement and importance lies in the observer's knowledge and connection to the meanings of the figures and the culture in which they are embedded.

Totem poles serve as important illustrations of family lineage and the cultural heritage of the Native peoples in the islands and coastal areas of North America's Pacific Northwest, especially British Columbia, Canada, and coastal areas of Washington and southeastern Alaska in the United States.

Families of traditional carvers come from the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl), Nuxalk (Bella Coola), and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), among others.

By the late eighteenth century, the use of metal cutting tools enabled more complex carvings and increased production of totem poles.In 1938 the United States Forest Service began a program to reconstruct and preserve the old poles, salvaging about 200, roughly one-third of those known to be standing at the end of the 19th century.With renewed interest in Native arts and traditions in the 1960s and 1970s, freshly carved totem poles were erected up and down the coast, while related artistic production was introduced in many new and traditional media, ranging from tourist trinkets to masterful works in wood, stone, blown and etched glass, and other traditional and non-traditional media.Some symbolize beings that can transform themselves into another form, appearing as combinations of animals or part-animal/part-human forms.Consistent use of a specific character over time, with some slight variations in carving style, helped develop similarities among these shared symbols that allowed people to recognize one from another.

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