Low man on the totem pole: Expression
I have been there, or at least I thought I had until today.
Meaning: To be the lowest in rank or the least important person. This expression is thought to have been invented by the American comedian Fred Allen about 1940 and has since immersed itself into everyday household vernacular. It really has nothing to do with Native American totem poles, nor does it have anything to do with being the least or unworthy. Much to my surprise, it means quite the opposite.
Anyone who describes themselves as the low man on the totem pole is probably complaining about their lowly station at work or in life—feeling like the peon who has to carry the rest of the tribe on their rickety shoulders or head. What they don’t probably know is that the lowest figure on a totem pole is generally the most respected. Totem poles are thicker toward the base; the bottom-most figure is typically the largest, most prominent and most ornately detailed and decorated of the bunch. Totem poles are carved not by one carver, but by a head carver and a number of apprentice-carvers. The head carver has a reputation to uphold so he or she personally carves the bottom ten feet of the pole. Inexperienced apprentices are allowed more freedom to carve the top of the pole.
When I was teenager, my brother Todd carved a totem pole for his Eagle Scout Badge. He did all the caving by hand with no power tools and it took the better part of a year to complete. I have always held a grudge that I was the only girl in the family. My brothers got to do cool things like be in Boy Scouts, making totem poles, spending time in group settings with their friends learning things like archery and throwing axes. My Dad did put me in Girl Scouts; however, the leader was more of a home-economics teacher who wanted her troop to be the next best Betty Crocker or Miss Suzy Home Maker. I wanted to be in the woods hiking, camping, fishing and climbing trees like my brothers. When I asked my leader when was our first 50 mile hike, she almost choked on the cup of tea she was drinking. When she told me that girls don’t hike, they cook and sew, that was it for me: I never went back.
When I was poking around on the internet looking for something to write this week, I found a few photos of the totem pole Todd made. It was amazingly beautiful when he first carved it, and if the photos are current, after thirty years of standing, it is stunning with a coat of moss—like a soldier standing watch on a winter day, snow falling on his shoulders. It makes me want to go back home just to take some pictures. I don’t know when the photos on the internet were taken, so I hope that it is still standing. If you get a chance Google “Totem Pole Olalla, WA” to find the photos.
Placing Native American Totem Poles is almost never done using modern methods, regardless of where they are placed. A large wooden scaffold is built, hundreds of strong men haul the pole upright into the footings while others steady the pole using ropes and bracing it with cross beams. Once in place, there is a celebration where the carver is given gifts. The then carver performs a traditional dance, holding his carving tools. The base of the pole is burnt before placement to provide rot resistance.
Once in place, the poles are not well maintained, so once the wood rots enough that it becomes a hazard, it is either destroyed or removed. It's believed that the deterioration of the pole is representative of natural processes of decay and death that occur with all living things.
So the next time you think of yourself as the low man on the totem pole, hold your head up and know that you are important and strong. The others that are over the top of you are depending on you to hold them up with your strength.