18 November 2019
The Low Man on the Totem Pole—Top or Bottom?
The Low Man on the Totem Pole—Top or Bottom?


A trend is starting to take shape in our office. Most of these begin with our general manager, Marc, and I having a conversation whereupon one of us will say something the other one questions. Then, I do research and wind up blogging about it. Most recently, I was talking about our newest recruit being “the Low Man on the Totem Pole.” Marc was confused as he thought that the lower figures on the totem pole were the more important ones. That makes sense, but that wasn’t how I understood the saying. Thus, I began to search for the truth.

The meaning of ‘totem’ is derived from the Algonquian word ‘odoodem’ which means ‘kinship group.’ The Native American totems that we all picture are typically carved from a single tree trunk, commonly a red or yellow cedar which is the most resistant to rot. The totem pole can have many meanings from welcoming travelers into a village, to commemorating deceased ancestors, to telling a legend, to ridiculing someone, to recounting notable events. Given the complexity and symbolic meaning of the carvings, their placement and importance relies on the observer’s knowledge of the culture the totem reflects.

According to Canadian naturalist, Pat Kramer—an expert on First Nations culture—the lowest figures on the totem pole are often considered the most prestigious. The designs on the bottom are the ones that will be seen at eyelevel, after all, so they are usually carved by the master while the apprentices work on the higher portions. The higher up the figure is on a totem pole, the more representational they are.

In short, the expression “Low Man on the Totem Pole” was actually popularized by radio comedian, Fred Allen, in reference to his friend, journalist H Allen Smith. Fred used the phrase in the introduction of Smith’s 1941 book of self-deprecating essays about his humorous adventures. The Low Man on the Totem Pole went on to become a mega-bestseller in the World War II era, especially among U.S. soldiers who were at the bottom of their respective chains of command.

Now that you know the real origins of the expression, Low Man on the Totem Pole, you can take it one of two ways—either you’re quite important or you’re very much not. Considering that both the military and the totem pole wouldn’t be what they are without all the vital base parts of them, I think we should just appreciate each other for what we are.


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