Like fallen trees in the forest, many hand-carved historical totem poles lay for years in abandoned Alaskan villages. They fell victim to decay, vandalism and souvenir hunters. Then, a growing awareness and appreciation of the traditions and art forms of the Northwest Coast peoples saved them.
Today, about three dozen such poles, icons of Southeast Alaskan Native heritage carved more than a century ago from massive Western red cedar—“the tree of life”—have a new home in Ketchikan’s Totem Heritage Center.
“We are a center of appreciation for totem poles recovered from unoccupied Native villages in the Ketchikan region in the late 1960s, items collected with the encouragement of descendents of Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian Natives who once lived there,” said director Michael Naab.
Representing the largest collection of original 19th century totem poles to be found anywhere in the world, the center is a repository for the vanishing art form. The Alaska State Museums, operating in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution and Native elders, surveyed totem poles in villages left vacant when inhabitants moved to towns at the beginning of the 20th century to seek jobs in canneries, sawmills and mines. Where hundreds of totems once stood, only 44 were located.
The Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood helped identify original owners and secured permission for their removal. Then, in 1970, a salvage operation called Alaska Totems: A Heritage in Peril retrieved and preserved the pillars as they were found. Though all were severely weathered, much original detail had survived.
The tree from which they were carved is the Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), which regional Native peoples have relied on for thousands of years. The inner bark provided fiber for baskets and clothing while the trunks were formed into dugout canoes or beams for large communal houses.
Totem poles, believed to be unique to Southeast Alaska and the coasts of British Columbia and Washington state, were carved on the ground, then raised by hand with great ceremony to commemorate significant events and record stories and family histories. Although they have great cultural importance, they are not religious objects and are not worshipped.
“Although some human forms can be found, most of the carved figures represent animals,” said the center’s collections manager, Richard Van Cleave. There are several types of totems, he noted, “Heraldic poles tell a story of a people or an event. Mortuary poles house cremated remains of a public figure. Potlatch poles were carved when someone assumed a new status, like that of a chief.”
In the nearby fishing village of Klawock there are more than 20 restored and newer carvings in Totem Park on the village green that rise up to 20 feet in height. Many of the carved figures are “crests”—animals, mythological beings or symbols of a group’s origins and history.
While totem pole figures may be recognizable, the exact meaning or significance of the pole can only be known to their creator. Originally, that information was introduced when the pole was raised, then passed down orally through the generations. “Unfortunately, those oral stories didn’t get told for a couple of generations, and now they’re lost,” said Naab.
Nonetheless, their power endures. “There’s a feeling of majesty about them, an incredibly spiritual feeling not involving religion but the culture of the peoples who inhabited these lands for thousands of years,” Naab said.
The Totem Heritage Center is at 601 Deermount Street, Ketchikan, Alaska, 99901; 907-225-5900.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. and New York City constitute two world-class cultural and educational enterprises. As its site states, the NMAI offers “one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native artifacts” (NMAI.si.edu).
The Heard Museum in Phoenix houses a vast collection of artwork and artifacts and mounts festivals and pow wow dancing championships. It is a jewel of American Indian culture in the Southwest (Heard.org).
The Tesoro Cultural Center in Morrison, Colorado showcases the art and artifacts of the many cultures of the Southwest, starting with the American Indians and proceeding to the Mexicans and Europeans. The Tesoro has art, great food, music and historical re-enactments (TesoroCulturalCenter.org).