Totem poles can be made to fill a variety of needs, but their primary purpose is to commemorate a person or event. Some of the most common types of totems are entryway totem poles. These are placed at the entryway of a home to serve as a coat of arms of sorts. Entryway totems mainly serve to honor ancestors, make the family or clan's social and economic standing known, broadcast family accomplishments or detail a spiritual event.
On a more literal level, mortuary poles honor the dead by holding deceased ancestors' remains. Mortuary poles are like urns -- they contain a cavity that holds a deceased person's ashes.
Ridicule poles, also called shame poles, are used to elicit public embarrassment, usually for unpaid debts. Shame poles aren't erected very much anymore, mostly because American Indians strive for solidarity, rather than fighting amongst each other.