What does Bottom of the totem pole mean?
If someone is at the bottom of the totem pole, or “low man on the totem pole”, it means he or she is at the bottom of the hierarchy, without power or status.
The opposite of it is the “top of the totem pole”.
What's the origin of Bottom of the totem pole?
The expression “bottom of the totem pole” is thought to have been invented by the American comedian Fred Allen in 1940.
The actual phrase used by Fred Allen appeared in a portrait of his friend, the American journalist and humorist, Harry Allen Smith in the Introduction of Smith’s book, the Low Man on a Totem Pole in 1941.
The metaphor doesn’t refer to the cultural meaning of Native American totem poles, but rather uses their form to suggest people are stacked one above the other in hierarchies.
As such, the most stress would be suffered by the one at the bottom.
Since, ranking usually places the most important on the top and the least important on the bottom, bottom placement is the equivalent of the lowest prestige.
Spread & Usage
How did Bottom of the totem pole spread?
The term was published in a cartoon in 1941 depicting “taxpayers” on the “bottom of the totem pole”:
“The Taxpayer is low man on the totem pole of War and Taxes; no matter how heavy their burdens he has to TOTE ’EM!”
Since the publishing of the book of H.A. Smith, the expression skyrocketed until 1972 when its popularity slightly lost ground.
Yet, the idiom is still commonly used in written and spoken language as well.