Roadtrippin’: Ancient totem poles preserved in Ketchikan help teach future generations

Updated: Jun. 5, 2021 at 8:00 AM AKDT
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KETCHIKAN, Alaska (KTUU) - At the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, over a dozen ancient totem poles are carefully preserved.

Theresa DeWitt, a guide at the museum, explains that was a controversial decision when it was made in the 1970s. Traditionally, totem poles carved out of red cedar were painted once and never repainted. They were allowed to naturally decay and return to the forest.

“Part of our Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people is that what we take from the land we give back,” DeWitt said on Tuesday.

Elders at the time decided to preserve a few dozen totem poles that were left in uninhabited Tlingit and Haida villages across southern Southeast Alaska. DeWitt said a call went out for used mattresses to help protect them as they were transported by boat to Ketchikan.

Some of the totem poles are laid horizontally behind glass. Dewitt says that’s to prevent further decay. Others stand upright, towering over the central room in the museum. They depict animals like eagles for a clan’s crest.

A few of the poles show signs of vandalism. Bullets were pulled from one; another had a whole section of a beaver’s face carved off by a souvenir hunter. It was anonymously returned, decades later, to the heritage center in 2010.

There was a common misunderstanding about why totem poles were carved. DeWitt explained some “newcomers,” a term she uses for the people who colonized Southeast Alaska, thought they were religious in nature and often destroyed them, believing they were a form of demon worship.

The actual reasons for carving a totem pole were much more prosaic: to honor a great leader, to mark when a new clan house was built and to help tell stories.

Standing in front of a large, upright pole, DeWitt pointed to six horizontal lines carved into it. Each line marked a time the clan had held a potlatch where ornate and time-consuming gifts were given out to every guest.

“You know right off the bat by looking at it that this clan is very wealthy,” DeWitt said. “Not wealthy as in money, but wealthy as in they have a lot of skill and cooperation to complete these events.”

Around the museum, there are other treasures. Elaborate masks, bone needles and beautifully decorated bentwood boxes, once used to hold seaweed and salmon.

“Even though it’s a few decades old, you can still smell the food in there,” DeWitt said.

But the heritage center is not just about history — classes are taught on weaving and carving.

DeWitt said that’s an important reason why the totem poles were saved. They can teach modern day carvers ancient techniques that may have been lost when Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures were suppressed.

She applauds the people who decided to preserve the poles as they were found, saying that some of them are estimated to be over 200 years old. Looking at their grey, weather-beaten facades, DeWitt is reminded of something her grandfather used to tell her.

“What you do now, you do for ancestors and also for your grandchildren who have not been born yet,” she said.

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