K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • identify Northwest Coast Indian tribes.
  • learn the purposes of totem poles.
  • become familiar with animal symbols used on totem poles.
  • plan a totem pole design on paper.
  • use initial sketch as basis for creating 3-D totem pole.
  • use clay handbuilding techniques of slab, coil, and ball to create totem features on a cardboard tube base with Model Magic air drying clay.
  • use watercolor paint to add color to totem poles.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

135 Minutes


  • Books/visuals about totem poles
  • Paper towel tubes cut in half length wise
  • Crayola Model Magic clay
  • Variety of clean clay tools (Popsicle sticks, plastic needles, small wood dowels)
  • Watercolor paint
  • Small paint brushes

Technology resources



Read Totem Pole by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith. This is a great book about a modern-day totem pole carver. I also gathered books, pictures, and handouts relating to totem poles and animal symbolisms of Northwest Coast Indians.


  1. Discuss location and names of Northwest Coast Indian tribes.
  2. Discuss purpose of totem poles (to record legends and honor important people).
  3. Show examples of totems.
  4. Discuss animal symbols and visuals of common totem animals.
  5. In the first class students will decide which animal symbols they personally relate to and draw an initial sketch of two totem poles in pencil. I used a handout for this with two blank cylinders on it but students can use a ruler to draw their own. I require students to sketch one preliminary design. The second totem pole is for further exploration or fast workers. Encourage students to put at least 3 animals on each pole. Students can create imaginary creatures, insects, or personal symbols, too! Those who finish early use colored pencils to add color to sketches.
  6. In the second class students use their initial sketches as a basis for creating their totem poles sculptures. We discuss the difference between 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional media. If needed, students can alter their original designs in the process of creating totem pole sculptures.
  7. The teacher demonstrates how to cut a paper towel tube length wise and share other half with a buddy. These can be pre-cut for accuracy but I prefer to let students try.
  8. Before letting students work, the teacher should demonstrate how to use a golf ball sized amount of Model Magic clay to create facial features of totems. Demonstrate the handbuilding techniques of slab (pancake), coil (worm), and ball. Show students how to manipulate these basic forms to create the facial features and body parts of their totems.
  9. Clay will stick onto tube by pressing gently. Model Magic is great because it sticks to cardboard, does not need to be fired, and can be colored with watercolors or markers!
  10. Show students how to use clay tools to add texture to clay.
  11. In the third and final class, students will add color to clay totem poles with watercolor paint. Some students may need to finish creating totem poles with clay before painting. Northwest Coast Indian totem poles usually have a brown or gray base with brightly colored details (red, yellow, orange, green, blue, black)
  12. Allow mini totem poles to dry.
  13. Students could create backgrounds for their totem poles if desired. This could be done individually or as a group mural project.


Did students successfully use clay handbuilding techniques to create recognizable totems?

A written quiz or oral critique may be used to assess the following:

  • Can students locate and name Northwest Coast Indian tribes?
  • Can students describe the functions of totem poles in Northwest Coast Indian culture?
  • Can students relate how totem poles are reflected in our society?

Supplemental information


totem: an animal or object from which a family traces its clan origins

totem pole: a tall pole carved from a single log with a design showing several totems stacked one upon the other. Totem poles are made to honor an individual or tell a legend or story.

tradition: the handing down of beliefs from one generation to another

tribe: a group of persons or clans with one common language and living under a leader or chief

clan: a group of families with one common ancestor

crest: an image of an animal adopted by a family of clan and used to decorate an object or clothing


  • Totem Poles and Tribes by Nancy Lyons. Raintree Books
  • Northwest Coast Indian Designs by M. Szontagh. Dover Books
  • The Art of the Northwest Coast Indians by Shirley Glubok. Macmillan Publishing
  • Totem Pole by D. Hoyt-Goldsmith. Holiday House Books
  • Totem Pole Indians of the Northwest by Don Beyer. Franklin Watts Library
  • Visions of the North by D. Mcquiston. Chronicle Books
  • Native Americans by James WilsonWayland Books
  • Emily Carr: An Intro to her Life and Art by Anne Newlands. Firefly Books, Ontario


Related websites

Totem Poles: An Exploration
This site lists common animal totems and provides inspiring ideas.

This is an amazingly detailed resource with great information about Northwest Coast totem poles! Look under “Lesson IV” for specific totem details.


I was inspired to create this lesson after traveling to Canada with the North Carolina Center for International Understanding. In subsequent art lessons, students will explore how Canadian artist Emily Carr used Northwest Coast totem poles in her paintings. This lesson is part of a curriculum unit on Canadian art and multiculturalism.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • Grade 5

        • 5.C.1 Understand how increased diversity resulted from migration, settlement patterns and economic development in the United States. 5.C.1.1 Analyze the change in leadership, cultures and everyday life of American Indian groups before and after European exploration....
      • Visual Arts Education (2010)
        • 5.CX.1 Understand the global, historical, societal, and cultural contexts of the visual arts. 5.CX.1.1 Understand how the visual arts have affected, and are reflected in, the culture, traditions, and history of the United States. 5.CX.1.2 Recognize key contributions...
        • 5.V.3 Create art using a variety of tools, media, and processes, safely and appropriately. 5.V.3.1 Evaluate how to manipulate tools safely and appropriately to reach desired outcomes. 5.V.3.2 Use appropriate media for the creation of original art. 5.V.3.3...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 5

  • Goal 3: The learner will examine the roles various ethnic groups have played in the development of the United States and its neighboring countries.
    • Objective 3.01: Locate and describe people of diverse ethnic and religious cultures, past and present, in the United States.
    • Objective 3.05: Describe the religious and ethnic impact of settlement on different regions of the United States.

Visual Arts Education (2001)

Grade 5

  • Goal 2: The learner will develop skills necessary for understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes.
    • Objective 2.01: Use additional art media, techniques and processes, which may include:
      • Drawing - charcoal
      • Printmaking - easy cut, mixed media, collographs
      • 3-D - wire
      • Photography - pin-hole cameras
  • Goal 5: The learner will understand the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
    • Objective 5.07: Demonstrate a sense of history (what came before and after) regarding cultures and works of art.