Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Totem Heritage Center

Friday, June 22nd- We decided to spend today seeing what Ketchikan is most noted for, their collection of Totem Poles. Our first stop was the Totem Heritage Center, which houses a collection of 19th century totem poles and other carvings.


We were surprised to find that the totem poles were displayed in an indoor exhibit, and that these were among the few that were standing upright, with others laying down, and inside a glass case.

These totem poles are the original totems (some as old as 150 years) that were retrieved  in the 1970’s from the Tlingit villages  on Tongass Island and Village Island, and the Haida village of Old Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island. The villages were being deserted, as the inhabitants moved to Ketchikan and other towns at the beginning of the 20th century to  be closer to schools and employment.

The average ‘lifespan’ of a totem pole is about 75 years before it will fall over and be left by the natives to rot and return to the earth. These totem poles were retrieved with the permission of native elders and preserved as they were found at the old village sites. Master carvers have studied them and carved reproductions which stand at other sites.


The display at the Heritage Center was accompanied by vey good explanations of the use of totem poles and the figures depicted. The totems, above show a beaver with a baby beaver in front (with the adult beaver’s tail partially covering it, and a bear that sits atop a totem pole.

Traditionally, totem poles were carved out of a red cedar tree, to honor important individuals, commemorate significant events, and to proclaim the linage and social standing of their owners. They have been used to memorialize as well as sometimes serving as a place for cremated ashes for an important tribal member.

The figures used will depict a ‘totem’ that represents the particular clan or ‘house’ ’of an individual, or will tell a story, sometimes mythical, that has significance.  The actual meaning of an individual totem pole can only be known in the context of when it was carved, by whom, and for what occasion. Totem poles have great cultural significance, but have never been worshipped or used as religious objects by the native populations.


This part of the totem pole represents a fable of ‘stone ribs’, a fisherman who fell in the water and was rescued by the orcas and brought to live with them. When ‘stone ribs’ started to miss his family, he had to wrap himself in a sea otter to be able to swim the cold waters to return home.

The ancient totems are weathered, but much of the carving is intact, along with traces of the original paint, which was typically mixed from a base of chewed and spit out salmon eggs mixed with natural minerals to create a blue/green or a red/brown, or a black pigment. As you can imagine, the paint was used sparingly to highlight the significant details.


We much preferred those more natural looking totem poles such as found at the Heritage Center, or these which were located atop a hill at Cape Fox Lodge…….

To those that we saw when we drove just a bit south of town to Saxman Totem Site.




Which were more recent reproductions of some of the same totem poles found at the Heritage Center.


More modern and more vivid paints were used, and the ‘ancient’ feeling is lost, but the craftsmanship is still amazing. On the left, is the raven who stole the sun….and I am standing by the figure of a wolf.


On left, is an eagle…and at right, Fred stand in a portal pole….one that would have been used at the doorway of a lodge.

And….speaking of eagles…….

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While driving about, we spotted these guys. Knowing that eagles are monogamous and mate for life, and that the young eagles spend the first 2 years of their life with brown and white mottled plumage…..We just would have to guess that this is a momma and daddy eagle with their youngster.

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Besides….don’t they just look like proud parents?

The Totem Heritage Center, lunch at Cape Fox Lodge, another jaunt downtown, then out to Saxman for the totem poles there, then a drive about to a cove south of town where we saw the eagles (it was an area that we were told about when we stopped and visited with a couple of nice ladies at the church we visited). Quite enough for one day!

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