Totem Poles - FamilyEducation

Totem Poles

Follow the Native American tradition of creating totem poles to record your family's heritage this Thanksgiving season.

Seasonal Sense

Totem poles were a creation of the Tlingit Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and lower Alaska. They were carved out of natural cedar wood and they expressed the history and accomplishments of the family. These bigger-than-life carvings depicted animals such as the bald eagle, grizzly bear, seal, porpoise, and wolf, which had symbolic meaning for the tribe. A totem would be raised for a multitude of reasons including honoring a deceased elder, recording an encounter with a spiritual being, or achieving a lifetime goal.

Native American tribes carved totem poles to record their family histories and legends. Your family might enjoy creating this totem pole that depicts your own legends and accomplishments.

Level: Easy

Time involved: Two to three hours


  • 12-inch piece of heavy wire
  • Several colors of sculpting clay (Fimo or Sculpy clay)
  • Baking sheet
  • Foam sheets (optional)
  • Scissors (optional)
  • Glue gun (optional)
  • Assorted colors of craft paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Foam plate
  • Clear acrylic finish spray
  1. Have a family discussion to decide what would best represent your family heritage (animals, shapes, symbols, etc.).

  2. Bend the wire in half and make a circular base at the bottom to create a form for your totem pole. Take a color of clay and knead it between your fingers to soften it. Form the clay into a cylindrical form that is approximately 1 12 inches high and 1 inch around. Form this clay into the first family representation, and slide it onto the bottom of the wire form.

  3. Repeat step 2 until you have four cylindrical shapes that are relevant to your family history.

  4. Place the clay totem onto a baking sheet and bake it in a 275°F oven for approximately 20 minutes or until hardened. Allow this to cool.

  5. Cut wings out of the foam sheet to add to the totem if desired. Glue these onto the totem with a glue gun.

  6. Pour small dollops of assorted colors of paint onto the foam plate. Paint the totem with the appropriate colors and allow this to dry. Spray the totem pole with clear acrylic finish spray and allow it to dry. Set the totem pole in a place of honor in your home.

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