Monday, July 22, 2013

Totem Poles and traditional arts

One of Ketchikan's many titles is Totem Pole Capitol of the World.   Saxman Native Village, Totem Bight State Park, the Totem Heritage Center, and totem poles throughout town remind us of the heritage of the original people, the Tlingits, as well as the later arrivals, the Haida and Tsimshians.  

The totem poles of Ketchikan include old poles, some now in controlled climate storage at the Heritage Center, others outside.  It includes poles made and erected recently, often to commemorate an event such as the opening of the Heritage Center, the college, or in front of private homes.

Poles traditionally were made to record events, as memorial poles for someone deceased, mortuary pole with a compartment for the ashes, or as shame poles for someone who had not repaid a debt.  One of the most famous shame pole  depicts Secretary of State William Seward.    His name is often remembered from the phrase, Seward's Folly but his push to purchase Alaska at $.07 an acre turned out to be anything but a folly.   However, a  visit to Alaska did include a diplomatic guffaw which resulted in the shame pole. He was  feted at a potlatch and given many valuable gifts of furs, artwork and other items.   Among the peoples of this region, such gifting requires a reciprocal event.   Seward accepted the gifts and enjoyed the gathering but never reciprocated.   Eventually a pole was erected to ridicule him for his failure.   Story has it that many years later, his descendants wished to rectify his error and get the pole removed.  When the value of the gifts had been tallied at current value,  the amount was so great they had to abandon their plan to reciprocate.  The pole still stands.

Poles also supported the clan houses.   The back wall of the houses, as well as totem poles, faced the waterways so that people traveling past in their canoes by would know which clan occupied the village.  The paintings on the walls are spectacular.

This blog is a photo essay of some of the many totems, three clan houses (although the Tsimshian usually refer to theirs as a long house while the Tlingit and Haida calls theirs clan houses).  Although each nation has a distinct language, have some differing lineage systems and customs, all three share similar art forms with distinctions obvious to those who are well versed in the fine basketry, the regalia, totems and clan house paintings.


Fred Trout is a Tlingit carver who spent part of the summer riding along on our
tours to Misty Fjords.  He worked as we traveled and gave a presentation to the guests on
carving and its traditions.  This photo is by Chris Nelson

This pole  in Metlakatla, honors veterans. 

Metlakatla, on Annette Island, is the only Native American Reserve in Alaska.
It is home to the Tsimshian nation. A group of 823 people plus the Scots missionary who had converted them, Farther Duncan, relocated here from near Ft Rupert, British Columbia in 1887.


Young Tsimshian, in regalia, stands by the long house.

Bent wood box and basketry on display at the Cape Fox Lodge

Vegetation has gained a spot to grow, helped by regular rains, atop an old pole.  

Totem Poles and Clan House at Saxman Village, about 2 miles south of


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