Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Preserving Identity & Art: Totem Heritage Center

Totem poles have been obscured by myth and misunderstanding for centuries. An art form that dates back to the 1800s, they have been overlooked by many. The Totem Heritage Center, in Ketchikan, Alaska, puts totem poles and the history they carry in the spotlight.

The Tlingit people, indigenous to the Pacific Northwest Coast, brought the craft and culture of the totem poles to Ketchikan. The Tlingit moved to Tongass Island in the 1830s, and later moved to Ketchikan so that they could have easier access to medicine and schools. A century later, in 1970, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, the U.S. Forest Service, and the State of Alaska teamed up to start the Alaska Totems: A Heritage in Peril project, which sought to salvage and celebrate totem poles.

The project involved collecting poles from all around Alaska, including Tongass Island, Village Island, and Old Kasaan. They decided to display the totems in Ketchikan because of its history and ongoing relationship with the clans that crafted the totems. The Totem Heritage Center opened in 1976, with assistance from Native elders.

Totem poles are traditionally carved from cedar trees, and because of decay, not many examples remain from before the 1900s. However, records show that native tribes from Alaska were crafting a variation of these poles, somewhat smaller and simpler, before Europeans had set foot on their land.

Totem Close-Up by flickr user ymmat

At first, European explorers believed that totem poles were pagan symbols or objects of worship. This theory was spread so widely that many still hold it to be true. However, while totem poles do have ceremonial value, they never carried any religious weight. Different types of totem poles are created for different reasons, but there are five main ones:

Shame poles, or ridicule poles, were erected to humiliate and disgrace a person that broke their word, did not pay an owed debt, or otherwise behaved dishonorably. These poles were placed in very public places, so that many people could see them. If the person changed their ways, or made amends, the poles were not only taken down, they were also destroyed.

Mortuary poles are carved when a person of high caste died. These poles had a hole in the back which fit a box in which the ashes of the deceased were placed.

Memorial poles were made in order to honor dead clan members. The poles were reserved for important members, such as leaders. Memorial poles were integral in society, for the next leader of the clan could not take charge until he had commissioned and erected a pole in the former leader’s honor.

House posts or pillars were carved with symbols of family histories. Some posts and pillars were architectural and provided support to the main beams of the house, while others simply rested against the supporting pillars of the house. Pillars were easier to move, and were used more than posts in Tlingit clans.

Heraldic or crest poles rested in front of a house and displayed the clan crest. Some poles that date back earlier include the portal pole, which acted as a ceremonial entry to the house. Crests on portal poles indicated the clan’s geographic origin, genealogy or events in family history.

Totem poles also depict traditional narratives, often telling creation or origin myths. For example, there are many totems poles depicting the story of how Raven stole the sun. This is a story told in many tribes, and even though the details change from place to place, most totem poles depict the same characters.

This story can be found on one of the totem poles at the Totem Heritage Center, along with many others. The Totem Heritage Center has the world’s largest collection of 19th-century standing totem poles, including some that are 160 years old. Tours are given daily, so you won’t miss any tales captured by the totem poles. The tour guides can also answer any questions you may have about the area or the Tlingit.

In addition to preserving existing totem poles, the Totem Heritage Center promotes the craft. Starting in October, their Native Art Studies Program will begin again, and the center will host workshops and lectures on Native art and culture. The center is open every day, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. until October. From October to April it is open Monday through Friday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., and closed Saturday and Sunday. Stop by to see a collection unlike any other.

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