About the www.Alaskool.org project and its developers

 Juneau's Totem Poles - A Glimpse of Tlingit History

Text and Photos by Max Cadiente

 Why Totem Poles?
There are four main purposes for totem poles in Tlingit Culture:

Totems identified or told a family story, legends of the clan

Totem poles were carved as memorials in honor of a deceased beloved or Chief, whose ashes were placed in a compartment in the back of the pole. Totems were made to commemorate an event such as the birth of a child or a brave deed by a hunter.

There were also shame or debt poles, which weren't used often, to make fun of someone who wronged the clan or village.

Totem poles were often raised to commemorate a potlatch.

 How are they created?

Totem Poles are carved from wood, using a variety of tools. Usually Red and Yellow Cedar are used to carve our canoes and to create totems. The first step is to cut down the tree, which was often done using chipped rocks, bones, beaver teeth, and shells. They also used Adzes, which came in a variety of sizes, made of stone. This was to hew a form. Carving Knives, made of stone, bone and shells, were also used. There are many shapes and sizes, made to fit the carvers hand and purpose.

 Totems Here in Juneau:
Click for a larger version of each photo



A huge seal lion killed a hunter of the village.

The uncles, seeking revenge, met to organize a plan. All the nephews went into training to avenge the dead hunter. In the winter the young men would bathe in salt water and be whipped with branches to keep the blood circulating.

One nephew who did not train with the others and was thought to be lazy, liked to sleep close to the fire. His skin became dark and he was
named Duk tÌ ootlÌ. He trained secretly at night and when the day of the
contest came he was ready. The young boys would attempt to kill the sea-lion bare handed.

Duk tÌ ootlÌ had to beg to go because every one made fun of him. After all of the young men had failed to kill the large sea lion, Duk tÌ ootlÌ grabbed the sea lion and ripped it in half on the reef.

Creation of Killer Whale

Naatsilane`i was a great hunter and respected in his village. Naatsilane`i
liked to hunt and fish with his three brothers-in-law.

The three brothers we jealous of Natsilane`i and left him on a reef at low
tide to drown when the tide covered the reef.

The youngest brother didn't want to leave him, but he couldn't help. A loon appeared and took Naatsilane`i to a secret world inside the reef.

Here were people like him who put him in a bubble and he drifted to shore.

Naatsilane`is wife was contacted and was told to bring his tools to him

He carved a mean looking monster called Kee`t.

The first one did not swim- but after carving the second one of yellow cedar it began to swim.

I have created you to avenge wrong doing. Three men will be in a canoe.
Dispose of the two bad ones but don't harm the youngest.

The killer whale eliminated the two brothers and swam to youngest back to shore.

Naatsilane`i then ordered the killer whale never to harm man again and let
Kee`t go.


Beaver Pole

Three Stories- before being cut into three segments, this Tlingit pole stood in front of the flying raven house in Wrangle, Alaska. A carving of Beaver once crowned the pole before the top segment succumbed to rot. The remaining sections tell three stories.

Devilfish- Heroism is celebrated in the story of Devilfish. A man and his
brother sacrifice their lives to save the village in a vicious battle with a
giant octopus.

Blackskin- the action-packed Strongman legend teaches discipline, endurance and forgiveness. The protagonist Blackskin, named for his sooty covering, gotten from sleeping too close to the fire, is ridiculed for his dark color and accused of laziness. He trains secretly at night, slowly building up his strength. When his uncle is killed in a sea-lion hunt, Blackskin demonstrated his courage by tearing the murderous sea-lion in half, those who were cruel to Blackskin are now fearful of his strength. He does not take revenge of his tormentors, but instead he forgives them.

Kayak- the legendary figure Kayak is assisted by a wise old woman who gives him a magical canoe. In this craft, Kayak is the victor in battle with a menacing sea monster.

Centennial Hall Poles:

Originally carved 1980-1981
Restored 2000
By master carver Nathan Jackson

Funding provided by:
Central Council
Tlingit and Haida
Indian Tribes of Alaska
Goldbelt Inc.
Kluckwan Inc.
World Explorers Inc.
City and Borough of Juneau

Were made from salmon eggs, hematite, and other minerals.
Black is the primary color.
Red is for secondary elements
Blue-Green is for tertiary highlighting.