Totems : a comparison and contrast of four totemic sculptures in northern exposure with Northwest Coast Native American totem poles


For the purposes of this thesis, an operational definition of totem is explored to reflect totem structures in the traditional sense, as compared to totem sculpture as portrayed in the television show Northern Exposure. Totem: A totem is a memorial, identifying, or ceremonial sculpture made of any materials, in any shape, and of any size. It may be commissioned by someone and made by an artist or the artist could create it for him/herself. It is introduced into the community with ceremony that gives it power and life. This power could be supplied by a formal or informal dedication in a spiritual sense or by turning on a switch in a literal sense. Based on this definition four artworks are compared and contrasted in the television series Northern Exposure and various types of Northwest Coast Native American totem poles. I chose the Northwest Coast Native American totem poles for the comparison and contrast because Northern Exposure is set and filmed in the Northwest Coast region. In order to make these relationships with Northern Exposure, I researched the totem poles of the Northwest Coast Native Americans. The following groups are emphasized because of.their contribution to totem poles carving: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Nootka, and Coast Salish. Each group has a different style of carving totem poles as well as creating different types of poles for varying purposes. The ritual of the potlatch, or give-away, where the totems are introduced and unveiled, is also described as are the totem poles and totem pole carvers today. This brings the Northwest Coast totem art to the same time period as Northern Exposure. Northern Exposure is a Universal Studios television series shown on CBS from 1990-1995. Many artworks are created on the show by different characters. Four artworks, considered totems by my definition, are compared and contrasted with. traditional totem poles of the Northwest Coast. This evaluation is made after the plot, characters, and each of the episodes containing the artworks were summarized. The examples of totemic artwork in Northern Exposure are as varied as the purposes of the Northwest Coast Native American totem poles. In many ways, the totemic sculpture of Northern Exposure is like the traditional totem poles of the Northwest Coast. The purposes for the sculptures are inherently similar. The differences lie in the appearance of the sculpture and the degree of elaboration and presentation in the pot latches or dedication ceremonies for the sculptures. The totem art, in both cases, celebrates individuals, connects families, tells stories, records histories, and communicates ideas. The unifying trait between the totem poles of the Northwest Coast, traditional and contemporary, and the totem sculptures in Northern Exposure is the apparent need for people to create art that identifies, memorializes, or commemorates people, events, concepts, and achievements.


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Thesis Completion





Congdon, Kristin G.


Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)


College of Arts and Sciences

Degree Program



Arts and Sciences -- Dissertations, Academic;Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Sciences







Access Status

Open Access

Length of Campus-only Access


Document Type

Honors in the Major Thesis

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