Level III-Art Lesson 5: The Pacific Northwest Totem Pole
Learn to draw a totem pole and learn about formline design
The lesson is suitable for students in grade 5 through adult.
Art Lesson Description:
We usually think of a line as a plain, thin boundary between two spaces. Native Americans living in the Northwest United States, however, have invented a different way of thinking about lines. In their art, lines are interesting because of the varied thicknesses. The lines have been called “formlines” to distinguish them from the plain lines we usually have used. This lesson is an introduction to some of the rules of formline design.
The original totem pole includes four figures: the owl, the raven, the whale, and the coyote. The lesson guides students in drawing their choice of one to three of these figures before adding the formline elements.
This lesson includes both POWERPOINT and VIDEO versions of the lesson plus 2 downloadable printouts: a warmup and a drawing of the totem pole.
List of Supplies for Each Student:
- 1 totem pole warm-up (this is included with the lesson)
- 1 sheet of 11" x 15" watercolor paper, cut in half to 5.5” x 14”
- 1 fine tipped permanent black marker
- Tempera paints or acrylic paints in these colors: red, blue-green, black, and yellow
- Set of brushes
Suggestions for Cross-Curricular Connections:
- Read The People of Cascadia by Heidi Bohan. One reviewer says the book is "This is the first comprehensive, easily-digestible book on Pacific Northwest Native Culture & History."
- For hands-on learning, order kits on cedar bark weaving, making cattail mats, and cedar plank houses from email@example.com.
- Learn about totem poles at these sites:
- Watch a video showing many examples of formline art
- Learn what the animals on totem poles symbolize
- Read about Raven, a hero of Pacific Northwest folktales.
- Read Coyote Stories by Mourning Dove. The collection gets very positive reviews, and the tales are told well.
- Read three stories about Oowl, in Animal Lore & Legend: Owl. Three traditional tales are retold by a native writer, helping youngsters to understand the connection between storytelling and the natural world.
Native American Animal Stories by Joseph Bruchac tells 24 Native American stories about Whale and other creatures.
Whale in the Sky tells a clear and strong story about how whale came to live in the ocean and not in the stream
- Writing: What figures are most common on Northwest totem poles? Can you find totem poles with any colors you did not use? Find out and write about what you learn.
- Science: Totem poles are usually made from cedar trees of the Northwest United States. How are cedars different from other evergreen trees? Why are they prized in Northwest Native American culture?
Approximate Time to Complete the Art Class:
- Introduction through guided drawing: 30 minutes
- Finishing the drawing: 45 minutes
- Total time: 75 minutes