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A Totem Pole Tradition: This Native American family is helping keep an ancient art alive.

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Author: Karen Kellaher
Date: Nov. 4, 2019
From: Scholastic News/Weekly Reader Edition 3(Vol. 76, Issue 6)
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 503 words
Lexile Measure: 790L

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Look for some of the reasons totem poles are made. Underline them.

THWACK! As Tain Guthrie walks up to his dad's workshop, he hears the sound of a tool striking wood. He can't wait to get inside. His dad is turning a giant log into a beautiful totem pole--and Tain gets to help.

Tain and his dad, Clifton, live in Metlakatla, Alaska. They're members of a Native American people called the Tsimshian (SIM-shee-ahn). The Tsimshian have a long history of carving totem poles and other wooden items. The Guthries are helping keep that tradition alive today.

Carved With Pride

The Tsimshian are native to parts of Alaska and western Canada. Like other Native American groups in those areas, they're known for their wood carving skills. For hundreds of years, Tsimshian carvers have used red cedar trees to make canoes, masks, and more.

Many Tsimshian carvers are especially proud of their totem poles, which they call pts'aan (puh-SAN). These tall columns have carvings of animals and other figures. They are created to tell stories, record events, or honor people or families.

"They have an important place in our culture," explains Clifton.

Tree to Totem Pole

Making a totem pole can take months. Carvers begin by planning a design and picking a tree. Once a log is cut, they take off the bark. They smooth the wood with an ax-like tool called an adze (adz).

Carvers use chain saws, knives, and other tools to create the design. Finally, they paint the pole and bring it to the place where it will stand. The community turns out for a ceremony called a totem pole raising.

Passing It On

Clifton has been a carver for 17 years. Now he's excited to teach Tain.

Like most kids, Tain is busy. He goes to school and plays Pokemon with friends. But he spends as much time as he can in his dad's workshop.

"I help with different things, like using the adze and painting," he says.

Tain dreams of becoming a carver like his dad. He loves carrying on a long tradition.

"It feels really good," he told Scholastic News.

--by Karen Kellaher


tradition: something that has been done for a long time

ceremony: a formal set of actions, usually to celebrate

Carving a Totem Pole

Learning to mate a totem pole is hard. These photos show a few of the steps.

Caption: Tain and his dad, Clifton, in front of the totem pole you can find on the next page

Caption: (1) Clifton shows Tain how to find a red cedar tree that's straight and tall.

Caption: (2) Clifton draws his totem pole designs before he carves. Tain draws his own designs.


Caption: (3) An adze is one of the main tools used to smooth and carve a totem pole. Here, Tain practices using one.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A606281568