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Recently my daughter made an amazing totem pole.
She was studying Alaska, which covered some information on Indigenous People for that area. This piqued her interest and so she asked to learn more about the Native culture there.
This is one of the things I love most about homeschooling.
After my daughter studied Alaska, she started telling me about Native storytelling and then asked if she could make a totem craft. And, I almost always say yes to her request to expand her learning on a topic.
(Because, I mean, duh.)
And, as an added bonus? This happened to be right before Native American Heritage Month, so I kind of felt like I was WINNING on that homeschool day!
Totem Pole History, Facts, and Symbols
Before you do the totem pole craft, make sure that you spend some time learning about authentic Native culture.
What is a totem pole?
Totem poles are usually large trees (most often cedar) that are carved with animals or other symbols.
They represent families, or regions, or clans.
Watch a video on how a totem pole is created:
What is the totem meaning?
Totems have different meanings based on who carved it (or who is displaying it).
For some, the totem definition is an event or specific time in history. For others, it might tell a story.
Who uses it?
In America, you may see indigenous people of Alaska or the Northwest Pacific with totems.
Initially there were only a few tribes or clans that used them, but then their use spread to other indigenous people.
For those who know totems, it may be easy to spot who created it. Totems are specific to the regions, families, or clans who carve them.
What are totem pole symbols?
Most totem poles are carved and painted with totem animals.
The poles can also have mythological symbols or symbols of legends passed through the family history.
What is a totem pole animal?
Each animal on a totem pole has a different meaning.
A quick search online and we found this cool Native American Totem Animals & Their Meanings.
Use these animal totem meanings as a guide when creating your totem.
(And, did you know that every animal and every color has a special meaning and significance?)
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Totem Pole Lessons and Activities
The craft below is fun, but it loses its learning value if you don’t understand what is behind it.
Be sure to talk about the history and meanings before you start!
Here are some great resources for Native and totem pole information.
(These could even help you create a unit study before the craft!)
• Read more about What Is A Totem Pole?
• Follow along with a Totem Tale story online:
A short Native American unit study
A few weeks before we did the Native American totem pole activity, we scored an awesome Native American book at a library book sale.
(It’s a little dated, but still had some really interesting information.)
My daughter started reading through the book and found a great section on totem poles.
She then decided that she wanted to tell a story of her personality through animals, but your totem can be totally different!
Your totem can tell a story, represent a specific important event in your child’s life, or anything else from their imagination!
Also, this Native American Totem Animals & Their Meanings really helped us understand the different meaning of animal symbols and she applied that new knowledge to her totem pole.
She made her totem with different sections of animals that represented a part of her personality.
It was really interesting to hear her explain it after it was finished and apply each animal and their meaning back to her personality!
Totem Poles for Kids | Make an Animal Totem Pole
• Paper towel tube, toilet paper tubes, or craft tubes (the amount depends on how tall you want to make your totem)
• Paint brushes
• Hot glue or tape (if needed, if you are making a taller totem)
• Paper and pencil
• A copy of the totem animal symbol meanings
• Small square piece of cardboard for base (optional)
1. Review and discuss the totem animal symbols meanings. Encourage the kids to think about what kind of story they want their totem to tell. (You can even read books about totems before the craft.) If level appropriate, have them write their story.
2. Plan and draw the totem on paper. This will allow them to rearrange the animals or stories before they start painting.
3. Glue the craft tubes together. (Optional. If you are using a tall paper towel tube and you want this to be the height of the totem, you can skip this step.)
4. Paint the craft tubes with the animals of choice. Let dry completely.
5. Hot glue the bottom tube onto the piece of cardboard as a base. (Optional only if you need extra stability.)
6. Have your child tell your story of their totem pole!