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: a tall usually wooden pole that is carved and painted with symbols, figures, or masks which represent different Native American tribes
—used to describe someone's position or level in a company or organization
Full Definition of TOTEM POLE
: a pole or pillar carved and painted with a series of totemic symbols representing family lineage and often mythical or historical incidents and erected by Indian tribes of the northwest coast of North America
Totem pole from Kitwancool Creek, B.C., Can.—W.E. Ferguson/Shostal Associates
Carved and painted vertical log, constructed by many Northwest Coast Indian peoples. The poles display mythological images, usually animal spirits, whose significance is their association with the lineage. Each figure represents a type of family crest. Some poles relate a family legend in the form of pictographs. Poles are erected to identify the owner of a house or other property, welcome visitors, indicate a portal or passageway, mark a gravesite, and even to ridicule an important person who failed in some way. See alsosymbol; totemism.