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By Art Sleuth by Jean Bundy

Have you ever gone past a Totem Pole and thought: silly, weird, even Disneyland-esque? True, the black, red, and blue-green coloration against the tall brown cedar post is iconic, along with creatures popping eyes, bird-like figures staring, and stacked out-of-proportion humans, all puzzling viewers.

Emily Moore’s book ‘Proud Raven, Panting Wolf’ explains why Totems are still up and thriving as tourist attractions, and how Tlingit/Haida historical/cultural heritage works that might have been overlooked if they had not been rounded up and placed into parks.

Book cover

In Southeast Alaska, between 1938-1942, the Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) under Roosevelt’s New Deal restored and replicated Totems which were then planted in European style parks, as a way to employ those in the Pacific Northwest in need of jobs, boost tourism, all with little regard for any cultural significance. And like many government programs, what was cooked up in Washington was idealistic, but would evolve quite differently when put into actual operation in situ. Ironically, the project propelled Totems into the 21st Century as an art form.

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Totem Poles are oral histories, sign posts of individual clans (Tlingit and Haida) found in Alaska’s panhandle (and in Canada). Moore explains these structures as, “mortuary and memorial poles for the dead, heraldic poles that recall stories of clan history or the origins of world phenomena, house frontal and interior posts that identify the house’s resident clan, and ridicule poles to shame another clan or person for an unresolved offense. All of these poles display crests—images of animals or other entities that ancestors encountered and earned the right (sometimes through their own death) to claim for their clans as identifying symbols (Moore 6-7).” The American story, ‘sea to shining sea’ has been embedded with cruelty to aboriginals. However, around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Native American craft making/art was elevated/glorified, not only to be collected but, hypocritically, admired as statuary and friezes on government buildings, becoming synonymous with US culture, which grabbed a needed identity in the face of older European aesthetics.

In the late 19th century, steamships carried tourists to Alaska. Travelers wanted souvenirs, which they bought onshore from Natives, or knock-offs sold in Seattle’s ‘Ye Old Curiosity Shop’ (still operating). In the early 20th century, Totems were displayed at World Fairs, further fascinating the public. However, if you were a scion like Edward Harriman, you could paddle your own yacht through the Inside Passage, and rationalize that pillaging for scientific research wasn’t theft. In 1936, a New Deal agency, the Indian Arts and Craft Board, under the auspices of Rene d’Harnoncourt, promoted quality craftwork versus tourist schlock, striving to give Natives a decent income and, “to help people realize that Indian arts and crafts are more than just curiosities (Moore143).”

The Great Depression impacted Alaska Natives, desperate for work, as canneries were hiring mainly white labor. Fishing had been greatly reduced by Seattle’s canned salmon industry which had installed waterway traps, thus preventing spawning, and once again abusing Native rights to subsistence. Between, 1938 and1942, under the direction of Frank Heintzleman, head of Alaska’s Forest Service, a CCC Totem Pole project ensued, to create jobs. Poles were collected from abandoned villages, graves and clan houses. Workshops were constructed where poles were restored or replicated, then relocated to novel architecturally blue-printed parks for tourists to experience from steamship railings and then onshore. Destroying cultural tropes was no big deal, as new allegories could easily be invented. Ironies abounded simultaneously.Aboriginals had to push to be hired until Congress mandated 50 % of the workforce had to be Native. Heintzleman was in charge of developing an environmentally unfriendly pulp industry, mainly employing white laborers to harvest the Tongass, which had been taken from Alaska Natives.

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More problems escalated over protocol as the CCC had minimal regard for ancestral histories, or the belief that once carved, Totems became alive. Poles are designed by one moiety but built by another. Totems eventually succumb to the weather and are replaced by new ones, purposely leaving the detritus in place. Members of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), established in 1912, who had been fighting the Feds for Tongass compensation, went to work repairing Totems, initially gathering them from abandoned villages. Layers of paradox: It was assumed Natives didn’t care about vacated property, but it was the missionaries who had forced Natives to relocate and therefore ‘abandoned’ was not a Native concept as they still regarded these areas as ‘place.’ Parks were initially foreign to Native culture. With no choice but to yield, aboriginals lobbied to have parks located on ‘Native townsite land’ so they ‘could still lay claim to their poles’ now government property—four parks were built on Native lands (Moore 44).

The CCC was naive in thinking there was an abundance of carvers waiting for work. Generations of skilled labor vanished as missionaries found Totems to be pagan and had forced woodworkers to craft boats instead. New carvers now had to be trained by the few remaining elder ones. When a Totem could not be salvaged the CCC wanted an exact copy, another foreign concept. Native woodworkers preferred to make the new poles differently. Slowly, the CCC learned that there were codes of honor and permission had to be granted to carve another clan’s imagery, while some clans so disliked each other that soliciting approval was a moot point.

Totem Poles in Haida Village of Howkan, Alaska c.1897 (Alaska State Library).jpg

The Forest Service had been lax when it came to ‘selective cutting’ thus finding trees with a broad girth became difficult. The CCC also sought out elders to learn paint recipes: rock powder, fish egg oil, juice of hemlock. Those in charge balked at modern Totem designs but caved to the convenience of commercial paints, and hired a Chicago paint company to make “totem pole green (Moore 60).” It’s interesting that paint making, pigments used in conjunction with vehicles and binders, was not just a Renaissance concept.

Totem parks orchestrated by landscape architects who had studied European esplanades seemed out of place. Lack of signage identifying the origin and narratives of poles was a complaint. Natives were reluctant to provide tales, as stories are intellectual property of specific clans, and a privilege to regale. Going from an oral tradition that allows for verbal embellishment to a fixed print narrative was intimidating, too. Stories were lost when government and church officials dismissed them as blasphemous. By 1939, the Forest Service published park pamphlets, and in 1948, ‘The Wolf and Raven, Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska’, was issued by the University of Washington Press, documenting the 121 poles that were repaired, replicated and their stories.

The Pearl Harbor attack wound down the Alaska CCC program by June 1942. According to Moore, “Framing the totem poles as great American art forms, the description worked to advance the New Deal goal of elevating the status of totem poles in the eyes of non-Natives and positioning the poles as among America’s finest contributions to world art (Moore 139).” Parks were abandoned until the ‘60s when cruise ships began to ply the Inside Passage, seeking on-shore attractions. In 1961, the Forest Service turned the parks over to Native control. Once again carvers (and now women) were in demand. In 1989, a school was opened at Saxman, followed by a gift shop in 1992. Totem Parks, once skeptically looked upon, are now instructive, cultural centers for Natives, and bucket-listed for tourists.

Moore presents a well-constructed read to a complicated story, bringing Southcentral Totem Pole restoration to all Alaskans. The brutality Natives endured from church leaders, and settlers, and the Federal government’s refusal to recognize Natives as citizens with rights, echoes as a shared history, across the entire U.S., with the CCC Totem Pole project, becoming one more metaphor for Alaska Native perseverance. Although Totems are not found in South Central, two poles, ‘Attaining Balance Within’ by Haida-Alaska Native, Lee Wallace, reside outside the Nesbett Courthouse in Anchorage. “The Eagle and Raven represent the refined sense of balance which governs the clans, denotes integrity and adheres to the laws of reciprocity (Courthouse brochure 35).” After reading Moore’s book, I’ll never look at a Totem again as just an amusing object, lacking in context.

Mini Sleuth: ‘Proud Raven, Panting Wolf’ by Emily Moore is available on Amazon.

Jean Bundy aica-usa is a writer/painter in Anchorage

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