We don’t know how long Native American tribes have been carving totem poles because wood rots. Eventually, every totem pole must be taken down and destroyed. There are totem poles from the 1800s and stories about totem poles from much earlier.
Totem poles are used for different reason within different tribes. Some are used to show family history, some tell stories, and some are meant for protection. Native American tribes even used to use totem poles to embarrass other tribes who owed debts.
When a Native American totem pole artist creates a totem pole, he first decides what animals to include. He designs his pole. When he knows what his totem pole will look like, he begins to carve. This can take a year to finish. Imagine carving an entire tree! Depending on which tribe he belongs to, the artist may then paint the animals with bright colors.
When the totem pole is finished, the tribe stands it up. First, the base of the totem pole is burned using wood chips that were carved from the pole during its creation. This is supposed to help slow the rotting process. Then a wooden scaffold is built and attached to the totem pole to make it easier to pull the pole up. It takes hundreds of people to raise the totem pole. Next, there is a ceremony in which the artist is paid for his work. He then dances around the totem pole holding the tools he used to create it
Check out this site for pictures of totem poles.
EDITED TO ADD: Create Your Own Story Totem Pole