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FNSS Curriculum Integration Project Click here to download this lesson.
Gord Hardman (MS-Word format.)

Grade: 4
Lesson 2: Group Work, Building and Colouring Totem Poles
Time: 40-50 minutes

Topic: Totem poles and First Nations art

Rationale: Students will further their understanding and appreciation for the beauty and complexity of First Nation’s art, specifically the totem pole.

Materials and Resources

  • Summative criteria self-assessment sheet
  • Selected reading: parts of the preface from Totem Poles by Hillary Stewart
  • Scissors, glue, pencil crayons (lots of bright red, yellow, dark green, and black)
  • 5 native art colouring sheets – 4 each
  • 2 copies each of the following colour and cut totem poles:
    • Thunderbird and Bear-With-Fish Pole
    • Ellen Neel’s Totem Pole, Stanley Park
    • Sam Henderson’s Memorial Pole, Campbell River
    • Bill Robert’s Memorial Pole, Campbell River
    • A Haida Single Mortuary Pole
    • A Haida Pole in Front of a Grave House, Totem Park, U.B.C.


  • Northwest Coast native totem poles
  • Welcome pole
  • House frontal pole (frontal, portal)
  • Memorial pole
  • Mortuary pole
  • Commercial pole

Identify positive traits of group work activity

  • consensus
  • cooperation
  • contribution

Main Concept
The lesson teaches and requires group cooperation skills, and allows for a hands-on learning experience. Students are exposed to the beauty and complexity of totem poles, and will gain a further appreciation and understanding of First Nation’s people.

Intended Learning Outcomes

  • Make 2-D images: to illustrate and decorate
  • Demonstrate an awareness that there are ethical considerations involved in copying images
  • Demonstrate the ability to co-operate to develop a group display

Planned Learning Activities

  1. Display totem pole cutout sheets. Announce groups, 3 students per group.
  2. Read selective preface (included).
  3. Discuss positive attributes of group work. Have student volunteers model or act out what consensus, cooperation, and contribution looks like.
  4. Have groups select a colour and cut totem pole. One per group only.
  5. Groups colour, cut, and paste totem poles together. Completed poles are initially displayed in the classroom, to be used group assessment purposes.
  6. Early finishers select and colour native art pictographs. The rule here is, as with Haida art: three colours only and no colour can lie side-by-side to itself.
  7. When all totem poles are finished and displayed, a class viewing and informal discussion is held, noting similarities/differences, features, etc.
  8. Students complete self-evaluation assessment sheet, related to group performance.

Self-evaluation assessment sheet – included, with student’s file, as part of social assessment


  • This beginning project extends perfectly to the building of a larger class totem pole, as included in the booklet Totem Poles by Bellerophon Books. With this larger project the class might be split into three or four groups, each group colouring and building the same totem pole.
  • The students might explore further the traits and characteristics of the totem pole figures, compiling research data on the figures.

Integrated Opportunities

  • Social Studies – identify regions or areas of the province where totem poles currently exist. This identification is followed up with a mapping exercise related to the location of totem poles in the province.
  • Language Arts – similar to lesson 1, the students can write stories based along the lines of those described for each of the major totem pole characters.

Resources Used and other Supplementary Material Available

  1. Totem Poles by Bellerophon Books (1987)
  2. Totem Poles, Vol.3 – Kwakiutl by Bellerophon Books (1999)
  3. Totem Poles by Hillary Stewart (1990)

Preface from: Totem Poles by Hillary Stewart (1990)

Standing on the beach under grey sky, I watched with apprehension as dozens of strong arms heaved on two ropes to raise the tall totem pole, little by little, to a vertical position in front of the plank house. To prevent the sideways sway of the pole on its upward journey, two teams of people held the other ropes taut.

The crowd stood in anxious silence, watching-the hush a contrast to the drumming and speech making that had preceded the pole raising. As I moved up from the beach, closer to the plank house, one of the hauling ropes bit into the cedar shakes at the roof edge and jammed. Two men on the roof ripped away the offending shakes and freed the rope. I heard it creaking from the strain of pulling up the massive log until a final heave brought the pole upright against the house front. A sudden burst of cheering and furious drumming shattered the silent tension, expressing the jubilation of about a thousand residents and offshore visitors.

The two-day celebration that followed featured a lavish potlatch-with dancing, singing, drumming, speeches, feasting and gift giving-for all who had witnessed this very special event. I felt privileged to have been invited.

The year was 1978, the place was Skidegate on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and the carver of the pole was Bill Reid. It was the first pole to be raised in the village in more than a hundred years, and only the second on the islands in the last decade.

With the regeneration of native art and tradition spreading throughout the Northwest Coast since the late 1960’s, the proliferation of new totem poles has been remarkable.

Perhaps no other product of Northwest Coast creativity is as well know as the totem pole; it has become the very symbol of Northwest Coast Indian people and their art, provincially, nationally and around the world. Although the name “totem” for these carved monuments of cedar is actually a misnomer-a totem is a creature or object that a person holds in great respect and religious awe- many years of common usage and the want of a better work have made it acceptable. Similarly, the word “chief,” although an inexact translation, has been given validity through common usage, particularly by native people themselves.

The majority of totem poles on view today are not in context. Many have been placed along highways; at ferry terminals; in parks, gardens and shopping plazas; outside hotels, public buildings, tourist bureaus, schools and, of course, in museums. Visitors to the Northwest Coast from all parts of the world often stand in wonder before some of the largest wooden sculptures ever created, astounded by their height and girth. They are perplexed and intrigued by the bold, complex designs and the extraordinary creatures of strange proportions that emerge from the logs with such vitality; and they ask, “What are they and what do they mean?” Most poles are accompanied by the barest information or none at all. Questions about what kind of work, who the carver was, how long it took to carve, how old it is, how it was raised and what the figures represent are mainly left unanswered.

Summative Criteria: Student Self-assessment
I have:
Contributed my share of ideas 1 2 3 4
Listened carefully 1 2 3 4
Supported my ideas with facts 1 2 3 4
Respected contributions of others 1 2 3 4
Stayed on task 1 2 3 4
Our group:
The finish/decoration of the totem pole is applied with skill 1 2 3 4
The overall design appeals to the senses through colour and eye-catching appearance 1 2 3 4

4 - Powerful (many strengths, shows good ability)
3 - Good (strength outweigh weaknesses, small improvement needed)
2 - Basic (half-way there, still needs improvement)
1 – Beginning (needs improvement, did very little)