Though Holder's workaday prose hardly does justice to his subject, he does provide a reasonable and informed introduction to the history, carving, functions and ceremonies associated with the unique Northwest Coast Indian art form. Holder sees the poles as ""substitutes for the printed word"" which ""showed the history of a man, his clan, or family,"" and he makes it clear that they never had any religious or magical meaning. Many will be surprised that the custom is little more than 300 years old, and that the ""most artistic and largest"" poles were made only after the coming of the white man with his iron tools. Also of interest in itself and as a corrective to widespread misrepresentation is the chapter describing the potlatch, ""an important and festive gathering of tribes to dedicate and explain a new totem pole. . . a time for gift-giving and for telling of plans and honoring members of the tribe who have done good deeds,"" and not the orgy of conspicuous consumption that white observers imagined. (Rather, ""the exchange of gifts was actually a system of trade"" in which ""the presents were actually loans."") The poles as photographed (though regrettably in black and white) speak for themselves, and if the one carved by a Fairbanks junior high school art class inspires a small revival, so much the better.