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Tasks: Totem by Thomas King

The top of a colourful First Nation totem pole, formed as an eagle. Photo.
Åpne bilde i et nytt vindu


  1. If you were to enter a Canadian art museum looking for art that was authentically Canadian and that presented Canadian identity, what would you expect to see?
  2. This short story takes place in The Southwest Alberta Art Gallery and Prairie Museum. What kind of art is displayed in the museum?
  3. How would you describe the characters in the story? (Beebe Hill, Walter Hooton, Larue Denny, and Jimmy) Who do they represent in Canadian society?
  4. What, or who, do the totem poles represent?
  5. There are several symbols used in the short story. Are you able to find the symbolic meaning of:
  • the totem pole itself?
  • where the totem poles are placed in the room?
  • the fact that the story takes place in a museum?
  • the act of cutting down the totem poles?
  • the repeated reference to the 'lack of space' for the totem poles and the fact that they are placed in the basement?
  • the noise the totem poles are making?
  • the fact that they grow back every time they are cut down?

What is a symbol?

A symbol is anything that stands for, or represents, something else. In a story, a character, an action, an object, or an animal can be symbolic. Often these symbols stand for something abstract, like a force of nature, a condition of the world, or an idea.

Source: Smithsonian Education.


The Canadian Constitution recognises three groups of Aboriginal peoples: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. These are three distinct peoples with unique histories, languages, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs.

Terminology can sometimes be tricky to navigate - who do the terms include? And which terms should be avoided?

Take a look at the terms below. Write down your definition of each. Then check your answers with the key below.

  • Aboriginal
  • First Nation
  • Inuit
  • Native American
  • Indian
  • Métis
  • Indigenous
Terminology: Key
This term refers to the first inhabitants of Canada, and it includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. 'Aboriginal' is also a common term for the Indigenous peoples of Australia. However, when used in Canada, it is generally understood to refer to Aboriginal peoples in a Canadian context. The term is not commonly used in the United States.
First Nations
The term 'First Nation' refers to Aboriginal peoples of Canada, but not people who are ethnically Métis and Inuit. It replaced the term 'Indian' in the 1970s and 80s.
The word 'Inuit' refers to the Indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Canada. You will also find Inuits in Greenland and in Alaska.
The term 'Métis' refers to people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry.
The term 'Indian' is today considered outdated and offensive but has been used historically to identify Indigenous peoples in South, Central and North America. However, in Canada the term is still used, but only to refer to the legal identity of a First Nation person who is registered under the Indian Act. In the United States, you can still hear the term 'American Indian' used with the same meaning as 'Native American'.
'Indigenous' is a term used to encompass a variety of Aboriginal groups, and it is most frequently used in an international or global context. The term is used to describe peoples of long settlement and connection to specific lands, who are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.
Native American
This term is primarily used in the United States and refers to a person descended from the people who first lived in the Americas. In Canada, the most used term is 'First Nations'.


  1. Mrs Hill is very upset about her visit to the museum. She decides to write a letter to the museum director where she complains about a "disturbing element in the exhibition". Write the letter of complaint.
  2. Write an analysis of the short story 'Totem' where you focus on the use of symbols and metaphors in the story. Use references from the text to support your argument.

Research 1:

Read for information:

Learn more about the First Nations and cultural assimilation.

Use the websites below (and others that you may find useful) and find out more about the following:

  1. What does the term 'to assimilate' mean?
  2. Explain what the so-called Indian Problem was.
  3. What was the aim of the Indian Act of 1876 ? What did the Canadian government do to achieve this aim?
  4. Explain what a reserve is. Do you know the difference between a reserve and a reservation?
  5. Explain what a Residential School was. What was the aim of the schools, and how were the children treated in these places?

Suggested websites:

Research 2:

Read for information:

Learn more about the present-day socio-economic conditions for First Nation people.

Use the websites below or other internet sources, and find out more about the following:

  1. income level, employment, and education level
  2. general housing and living conditions
  3. health issues among First Nation people
  4. the situation for First Nations in the criminal justice system

Suggested websites:

Relatert innhold

The short story Totem by Thomas King discusses the conflict between First Nation people and the dominant Western culture in Canada.

CC BY-SASkrevet av Karin Søvik.
Sist faglig oppdatert 19.01.2021


Indigenous Cultures and Traditions