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II. Antiquity of the Totempole

The first impression one gains of totempoles is that they must be of great antiquity. This is due largely to the presence of a great many rotting, lichen-covered, leaning poles in a number of deserted Indian villages throughout the totempolar region. It is further borne out when one attempts to question the Indians about these curious monuments. They either profess to know nothing about them or their stories are at such variance that no two account of any particular pole seem to coincide.

That totempoles, however dilapidated, are not necessarily of great age, certainly not prehistoric, may be noted in the case of New Tongass village. Here the poles appear to be as ancient as any on the Northwest Coast, yet we know positively that none were carved there before 1867, the year the village was established. At this site, the "Lincoln" pole was falling apart at the age of fifty years; it was beyond all repair at the age of seventy. The reason for this, besides the rigors of climate, is the fact that, once erected, the Indians never troubled to repaint or repair their finest totems.

In questioning natives about totempoles in their neighborhood one is generally disappointed with his results. The younger Indians have not been taught the meaning of the poles and older tribesmen are generally reluctant to discuss tribal matters with strangers. Another reason is that Indians on the Northwest Coast recognized a property right in stories as well as in songs and dances. In other words, you could not sing a song belonging to another, or dance his dance or tell his story. It follows, then, that one must go to a member of the clan to whom the pole belongs if he wants the story. Even then he will likely fail, for stories are long, the way Indians tell them, and he might not deem it worth his trouble. Some are willing to tell these totem stories at so much per hour, at which rate the story can be continued indefinitely.

Since totempoles, being made of wood and constantly exposed to the elements, are necessarily short-lived, our only hope of establishing their age rests in the accounts written by the first white visitors to these shores.

Chirikof landed men near Sitka in 1741 but none were ever heard of again, hence he left no record of what was seen on the voyage of discovery. Bering did little better. Touching at Cape St. Elias some thirty-six hours after Chirikof sighted land, he allowed members of his party only six hours ashore. They made no mention of having seen strange monuments but did report they found huts made of smooth boards, in some places carved. At least he established the fact that they were wood-carvers prior to the coming of white men.

The next account of a voyage to the Northwest Coast was that of Maurelle in 1775. This Spanish navigator makes no mention whatever of totems of any type being at Sitka at that time. It seems highly improbable that he would have failed to mention such unusual monuments had he seen any, so it is reasonable to conclude there were none at Sitka prior to 1775.

The Iron Age

This date, however, marks the beginning of an extensive trade on this coast between the natives and Spanish, French, English, Russian and American traders and explorers. The principal item desired by these Indians in trade for their furs was iron, either implement or bar. It is natural, then, that whatever crafts that had formerly been carried on by the use of stone tools would be greatly accelerated with the introduction of steel.

photo p23

The will of Kolteen, Kiksadi chief, was contested in Wrangell court, but in the end the widow waived her rights to the "Sun House" (background) "in consideration of certain debts having been assumed by Willis Hoagland, the lineal chieftain, and the further consideration of having a totem erected to the honor of my husband and his gens…" The agreement was signed in 1895, and the totem erected several years later. [Photo by Author]

It is a mistake to assume that iron was entirely unknown on this coast prior to the coming of white men. Some, no doubt, had reached them by trade with other tribes who had contact with whites. Other iron had drifted ashore in wreckage, so much in fact, that the Haidas believed "iron logs" to be the original source of iron. These logs were sought on the beaches and when found were burned for the spikes and bolts they contained. Their first name for white men was "yaatz-haada" or "iron people" because these pale strangers had such great quantities of this precious metal when first encountered.

Captain Cook, who visited Nootka on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in 1778, testified to the extensive use of iron at that early date. I quote him directly: "Their great dexterity in works of wood, may, in some measure be ascribed to the assistance they receive from iron tools, for, as far as we know, they use no other; at least we saw only one chisel of bone. And though, originally their tools must have been of different materials, it is not improbable that many of their improvements have been made since they acquired a knowledge of that metal, which now is universally used in their various wooden works. The chisel (adze?) and the knife are the only forms, as far as we saw, that iron assumes amongst them. The chisel is a long flat piece, fitted into a handle of wood. A stone serves for a mallet, and a piece of fish-skin for a polisher. I have seen some of these chisels that were eight or ten inches long, and three or four inches broad but in general they were smaller. The knives are of various sizes; some very large; and their blades are crooked, somewhat like our pruning-knife; but the edge is on the back or convex part. Most of them that we saw were about the breadth and thickness of an iron hoop; and their singular form marks that they are not of European make. Probably, they are imitations of their own original instruments, used for the same purposes. They sharpen these iron tools upon a coarse slate whetstone and likewise keep the whole instrument constantly bright."

The explorer, La Perouse, who spent considerable time at Lituya Bay in 1786, described the natives at length, and his artist drew sketches of them and their boats and houses. But nowhere did he mention or show sketches of totempoles from which we must conclude that there were none there at that time.

Sketch page 25
Interior house pillars at Nootka in 1778. [From a sketch by Webber in "Capt. Cook’s Voyages"]

Dixon and Portlock who were on the Northwest Coast in 1787 had much the same experience. Dixon explored and named the Queen Charlotte Islands. He saw many of the inhabitants and collected a rich harvest in sea otter skins but apparently saw no totems of any kind. In Dixon’s case it is not conclusive that there were no totempoles, for he purposely avoided the villages, fearing attack. All of his trading was done between boat parties from his ship and canoe parties who went out from hidden villages to barter.

A most significant fact, however, is that in trading for sea otter pelts, the item post in demand by the natives was the "toe" or "towe." This word, which is Hawaiian in origin, means "adze" in Hawaii and is used entirely for "adze" by Dixon and other traders on the Northwest Coast. In trading with the Haidas, "toes" were desired to the exclusion of all other trade goods in some instances; they were even given to children as presents.

Since the adze is the principal tool used in carving totempoles, as well as in making house planks and canoes, considerable impetus must have been given to woodworking of all kinds at this time, for now almost anyone could have tools that once were possessed only by the wealthiest chiefs. In the Queen Charlotte Islands the stone age had ended over night.

John Meares in his "Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America" published in London in 1790 hinted strongly of the existence of totems of some sort in the Queen Charlotte Islands. On page 367 occurs this passage, "…and the great wooden images of Tartanee bore East, one quarter North; the village on the opposite shore bearing South half West. This harbor is in the latitude of 54 degrees 18 minutes N, and longitude 227 degrees six minutes East…"

Meares was no doubt referring to exterior house posts at a Haida village on Langara Island just off the Northwest tip of Graham Island. Since this was in the year following Dixon’s visit to these Islands, it is reasonable to conclude they were there but passed unobserved by Dixon’s men, due, no doubt, to their reluctance, if not orders, to go near the native village where in those days they might be captured and held for ransom.

This same Haida village on Langara or North Island was described by Etienne Marchand in his "A Voyage Round the World 1790-92." He gave perhaps the first good description of a Haida family or heraldic pole such as they erected against the front of their houses and which served as doors through which they entered their ornate habitations.

On page 401, he said, "This opening is made in the thickness of a large trunk of a tree which rises perpendicularly in the middle of one of the fronts of the habitation, and occupies the whole of its height; it imitates the form of a gaping human mouth, or rather that of a beast, and it is surmounted by a hooked nose, about two feet in length, proportional in point of size, to the monstrous face to which it belongs…over the door is seen the figure of a man carved in the attitude of a child in the womb, and remarkable for the extreme smallness of the parts which characterize his sex; and above this figure rises a gigantic statue of a man erect, which terminates the sculpture and the decoration of the portal; the head of this statue is dressed with a cap in the form of a sugar loaf, the height of which is almost equal to that of the figure itself. On the parts of the surface which are not occupied by the capital subjects, are interspersed carved figures of frogs or toads, lizards and other animals, the arms, legs, thighs and other parts of the human body…"

Marchand added that these totems were of lively red, black and apple green and remarked that the houses across the channel, that is, on Graham Island, had no poles.

The Alaska or "Kaigani" Haidas are descended from a group that originally lived on Langara Island and crossed Dixon’s Entrance to Dall Island over 200 years ago. It is perhaps they who introduced the totempole to Alaska, if not to the world. These people have a legend to the effect that the first totempole drifted ashore on Langara Island, giving these natives a model from which all totempoles are believed (by them) to have originated. It is at least significant that totempoles were observed at this spot when they were still unreported by seamen who visited all the other native settlements of any importance on the Coast.

In his article "A Yankee Trader on the Northwest Coast, 1791-1795," in Vol. XXI, No. 2 of the Washington Historical Quarterly, Mr. F. W. Howey related the exploits of Capt. Roberts of the Jefferson. While at Kaigani, a Haida village on Dall Island in 1794 the captain had occasion to assist in making and erecting a totempole. I quote: "To ingratiate themselves and to aid the trade, the captain with the carpenter and some of the crew went to the village to plane and smooth a totem pole. The next day they returned with two spare top-masts and the necessary tackle to raise the pole and set it in position."

Later Cunneah, the chief, asked Captain Roberts to have the pole painted, which he did. Some days later at Cunneah’s request men were sent to raise and place a carved figure on the top of the totem pole, the figure resembling a toad.

The Mortuary Pole

The first good description of a Tlingit mortuary pole comes from the Spaniard, Don Alexandro Malaspina who saw several at Yakutat in 1792. In his book "Voyage Round the World 1789-94" is a drawing of a large bear totem holding in its paws a box containing ashes of the dead. His description follows: "We do not know whether the colossal monster which occupies the foreground is an idol or merely a frightful record of the destructive nature of death, but the fact that in its vicinity are various pyres on which bodies have been cremated inclines us to the first idea. In a casket which lay beneath its claws or hands was a bowl-shaped basket, a European hat, an otter skin and a piece of board. The height of the monster was no less than ten and half feet (French). The whole was of pine wood and the ornaments on the casket were of shells embedded in the same wood. The colouring was of red ochre with the exception of the teeth, the claws and the upper part of the head which were painted black and white. In the upper chambers of the two sepulchral deposits were two baskets, one greater than the other, the contents covered with loose boards, containing a basket with some calcined bones, broken up very small so that it was scarcely possible to distinguish between the parts of the cranium and the two first cervical vertebrae.

"The Monster faced Eastward, his name, according to some natives who accompanied us, was Inkitchetch, and the monuments at the sides corresponded to the two sons of the present Ankou (chief), who so informed us himself on our return from this excursion. Even more notable was another deposit no more than two musket shots from that already described, and although its object was the same, to shelter one casket and elevate another to a greater distance from the ground, its paintings and adornments, the hair which from the ends of the poles which served to support the chamber and on one high posterior peak, put there probably to remind the passer-by of the person whose ashes were deposited there, all gave to the place an admirable prominence which was enhanced by the beauty of the surroundings. Some officers of the Descubierta who visited this place in company of the Ankou, were able to ascertain that it was the sepulcher of one of his wives. D. Antonio Tova found a similar group of monuments on Pineda Island, facing the same direction and with the same monster, which leads us to believe that each family sets up its own particular monument which, made of wood and afterwards neglected, in a few years falls victim to the weather." (See picture on page 37.)

Alexander Mackenzie reported no detached totempoles among the Bella Coola whom he visited in 1793. But he did describe interior house posts which are common throughout the totempolar regions and more widely used than any other carved pole on the Northwest Coast.

A Native House

In describing a native house, Mackenzie said in part, "The groundplot of it was fifty feet by forty-five; each end is formed by four stout posts, fixed perpendicularly in the ground. The corner ones are plain, and support a beam of the whole length, having three intermediate props on each side, but of a larger size, and eight or nine feet in height. The two centre posts, at each end, are two feet and a half in diameter, and carved into human figures, supporting two ridge poles on their heads, at twelve feet from the ground. The figures at the upper part of this square represent two persons, with their hands upon their knees, as if they supported the weight with pain and difficulty; the others opposite to them stand at their ease, with their hands resting on their hips. In the area of the building there were the remains of several fires. The posts, poles, and figures were painted red and black; but the sculpture of these people is superior to their painting."

Captain George Vancouver who visited the Northwest Coast in 1793-94 described various mortuary poles that he saw. Near Cape Spencer, he wrote, "Here were erected two pillars sixteen feet high, and four feet in circumference, painted white; on the top of each was placed a large square box; on examining one of them it was found to contain many ashes and pieces of burnt bones, which were considered to be human; these relics were carefully wrapped up in skins and old mats, and at the base of the pillars was placed an old canoe in which were some paddles."

Sketch page 30
John Muir sketched this Bear totem (left) at Kotslitan (Old Wrangell) in 1879 when its condition indicated it was at least fifty years old. When photographed by the author in 1940 (right) it was easily the oldest standing pole in Alaska, the only pole left at the village abandoned a hundred years ago when the Russians built their fort at Wrangell. [Sketch from John Muir’s Alaska Notebook, Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. X]

Near Point Adolphus, Vancouver continued, "a box was found about four feet square, placed upon wooden pillars about six feet from the ground. This box contained the remains of a human body very carefully wrapped up, and by its side was erected a pole about twenty feet high, painted in horizontal streaks red and white; the colors fresh and lively and from the general neatness of the whole, it was supposed to be the sepulcher of some chief."

A year earlier, June 1793, at 52 degrees 17 minutes north, on the mainland, Vancouver saw decorated houses and detached totempoles which might not have been mortuaries, in which case they would be the earliest reported detached totempoles other than mortuary. Vancouver’s brief description is as follows: "The gable ends were decorated with curious painting, and near one or two of the most conspicuous mansions were carved figures in large logs of timber, representing a gigantic human form, with strange and uncommonly distorted features."

Although Maurelle apparently saw no totempoles at Sitka in 1775, thirty years later Urey Lisiansky, who arrived at that place in August 1805 on the "Neva," saw a great many mortuary poles. He wrote: "The bodies here are burned, and the ashes, together with the bones that remain unconsumed, deposited in wooden boxes which are placed on pillars that have different figures painted and carved on them, according to the wealth of the deceased. On taking possession of our new settlement we destroyed a hundred at least of these, and I examined many of the boxes."

Lisiansky agreed with Marchand that the colors were black, light green and dark red. A predecessor of the Haida house pole which they later borrowed, was just appearing, for Lisiansky wrote: "These families, however, always live apart; and, to distinguish the caste to which they belong, they place on the top of their houses, carved in wood or painted, the bird or beast that represents it."

Otto van Kotzebue who was in Sitka in 1825, only twenty years after Lisiansky, apparently saw no totempoles of the mortuary type, for he wrote, "The dead are burned, and their ashes preserved in small wooden boxes, in buildings appropriated to that purpose. They have a confused notion of immortality, and this is the only trace of religion which appears amongst them. They have neither priests, idols, nor any description of worship, but they place great faith in witchcraft, and the sorcerers, who are also their physicians, are held in high estimation, though more feared than loved…" As many others had done before him and since his time, Kotzebue might well have mistaken grave totems for idols had he seen any.

Captain Sir Edward Belcher briefly described Sitka which he visited in 1837 but he, too, made no mention of totem poles. Yet, on page 104, is a sketch of a native tomb, raised slightly off the ground and decorated with totemic designs. Behind it rises a pillar on which is an "orb" surmounted by a cross. This symbol of kingly power and justice no doubt was introduced by Europeans as it is foreign to any design found in Northwest Coast decorative art.

Jonathan Green, a missionary who toured the Northwest Coast in 1829 with the idea of establishing a mission, saw totempoles, probably at Kaigani. He wrote in part, "They occasionally build a decent house, and erect before it a mast or log of wood of great size carved and painted fantastically…." Green was from Hawaii, but apparently saw no connection between Polynesian and Northwest Coast art and craft.

Sir George Simpson visited both Canadian and Alaskan villages and Hudson’s Bay posts in 1841-42 but made no mention of totempoles encountered except for mortuaries at Sitka. He did, however, pay tribute to the native artists when he wrote, "they carve steamers, animals, etc. very neatly in stone, wood, and ivory, imitating, in short, everything that they see, either in reality or in drawings…"

In describing native mortuary customs at Sitka, Simpson wrote: "Lastly, the ashes were collected into an ornamental box, which was ultimately to be elevated on a scaffold, or on the top of a pole. On the side of a neighboring hill we saw a vast number of these monuments, which presented a very curious appearance."

The foregoing accounts cover a period of exploration of one hundred years duration and contain about all that has been recorded concerning totempoles in that century. From them we may infer that interior house posts were in general use throughout the entire region before the coming of white men; that the mortuary pole was common in Tlingit and Haida villages; that the exterior house post is Haida in origin, probably originating on Langara Island, that the detached totempole must be of recent origin, possibly not over a hundred years old—that totempoles in general reached their highest development during the period of white trade and occupation, roughly between 1840 and 1880.

There are two good reasons why the detached totempole developed since the advent of Europeans. First, white men brought in great quantities of steel which made woodcarving a simple and speedy process thereby substantially reducing the cost; second, the trade in sea otter skins brought unheard of wealth to the various chiefs and their clans.

With this new affluence, the chiefs sought to raise their relative social statuses by giving great potlatches and ceremonials at which time they took on new names and honors. Having no system of writing, they originated the detached totempole and erected it to serve as a witness to and a validation of these important steps up the social ladder. This rivalry, never friendly, became so intense that bitter feuds arose between contesting chiefs over the size and quality of these poles. Barbeau records an instance wherein a chief raised a totempole all out of proportion to his social status and was forced by a more powerful rival to chop it down to his size; that is, his proportionate importance.

Others were made to remove crests to which they had no ancestral right or to which other clans held priority rights. Chiefs, new rich, but without heraldic symbols, took new ones derived from white contacts, such as the bull, picket fence, ship and saint. The Sitka "Alaskan" of Feb. 9, 1901 had a story telling of a group of Kiksadis who were arrested for chopping down a frog emblem that had been erected by the Kluk-na-ha-dee clan at a potlatch some three years previously. The Kiksadis, whose own principal emblem is the frog, believed the Kluk-na-ha-dee had no right to it but the law saw otherwise and Skoo-e-is, Koo-kwat, Ko-klu-klit, and Too-yet were sentenced to three months in jail for their offense.

Golden Age Of The Totempole

The Golden Age of the totempole was the period of some forty or fifty years ending about 1880. Strangely, this is the most poorly documented period in the history of the totempole since the discovery of the Northwest Coast. Yet in those few years the whole Coast suddenly blossomed in elaborate totemic columns and gaily decorated community houses—and then, just as suddenly, faded out forever.

James Deans, a Scotsman, who came to this region as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1853, is perhaps the best authority on what brought this about. In his little book, "Tales from the Totems of the Hidery," he told the story in few words and convincing style. For that reason, I quote him directly: "About 1932, a number of whaling ships used to winter, while on the North Pacific, at Skidegat. These whalers came chiefly from Boston or Maine. On one of these ships was a certain Captain Jefferson, who for some reason made up his mind to leave the sea and stay on shore amongst the Hidery (Haida). He seems to have had considerable means. On shore he made his home with a family, where he lived a number of years, and died in the latter thirties at the Indian’s house, leaving all his money and effects to his host. According to the social laws of the Hidery, when anyone died, leaving his or her property to another, the one who inherited it had also to take the name of the donor. So this family took the name of Jefferson by which they have been known ever since. Having thus acquired so much additional property, they became the wealthiest family in the village, excepting the chief. This induced him to build a new house with totem pole, showing higher social standing in the tribe. In order to find something to carve on his pole, he adopted a part of the coat of arms of the chief, which he thought he had a right to, his wife being the chief’s sister. As soon as the chief knew Jefferson’s intentions, he told him that on no account would he allow his crest to be quartered. Jefferson knew it would not do to oppose the chief, so he said: ‘Skidegat (the chief) won’t allow me to take part of his crest, so I will have one of my own made and show him who is richest and at the same time leave no bare space like the poorer people.’ So when his pole was set up, it had three rows of the tau or copper cross money, one in front and one on each side, in addition to his family crests. When the chief died, Jefferson took down his imitation copper money pole, and in its place put up another with the late chief’s coat of arms quartered, including the story connected with it.

"As I said before, none but chiefs were able to put up elaborately carved columns, with ancient stories on them, up to the years 1830 or later. From that date on to 1880 the Hidery began to go abroad as sailors and otherwise mix with the white settlers, where by labor and other means they acquired many and goods. These were sent home to their relations, in order to help them to have fine houses and totem poles. For that purpose every means was used. Soon the common people became richer than the chiefs and had better houses and more elaborate totem poles. Soon an active competition commenced, each one trying to have the best. Wives, sisters and mothers would prostitute themselves, in order to obtain the wherewith to get ahead of the others. Some died in the mad race for wealth and today the unfinished houses stand a beautiful ruin, sad mementos of the past.

"While some were busy with this building and carving, others were busy collecting all the old stories to be found, bearing on their respective crests, from the old folks and from the ancient mythology of the Hidery. By these means many an old legend and myth, all but forgotten, was revived; even distant tribes were applied to and many an ancient tale, still lingering in the memories of the old folks, was brought to light. These tales, as soon as found, were carved on the totem poles of the parties, who by the social laws of the Hidery were entitled to them. By these means many an old story was preserved."

The Doom Of The Totempole

A number of things conspired to end the totempole’s Golden Age as abruptly as it had begun. Among them were smallpox, the abolition of slavery, the coming of salteries and salmon canneries, and the white man’s shack and airtight heater. Contributing also were British law which forbade the potlatch, missionary influence, and the general cheapening of an institution which was once the exclusive right of the nobles. Like the "tinneh" or chief’s copper which became virtually meaningless when counterfeited, so now the true heraldic pole was cheapened by the gaudy monument of the new rich. The old aristocracy was falling and with it went its symbols.

Smallpox so decimated the Haidas that out of a population of nine or ten thousand, only about 600 were left in the Queen Charlotte Islands and about the same number in Alaska. Whole Tlingit villages were wiped out. Others, stricken by the dread disease, were abandoned forever as cursed. Many natives flocked to the vicinity of salteries, canneries and gold mines. Here they were crowded into small, ill-made, poorly ventilated shacks where tuberculosis took up where smallpox left off.

Those who remained in the tribal villages had to abandon the huge community houses, for without slave labor they could not be heated and otherwise maintained. The airtight heater was the solution but it called for smaller houses, for fuel, although abundant on the stump, was a serious problem in wintertime. The airtight heater with its slow fuel consumption made it possible for the menfolk to prepare enough fuel in advance that they could go trapping in winter, or hunting and fishing at great distances from home, leaving their families behind for the first time. Freed from their primitive daily chores, the Indian men were becoming wage earners and their households began to differ but little from those of the earlier pioneers now filtering into the region. Where once they were seasonally nomadic gatherers, more settled life now opened the way for the establishing of missions and schools. Towns, rather than winter villages, were coming into being, and in them totempoles were considerably out of harmony.

A few desultory attempts at totempole carving have continued until the present day, particularly between 1880 and 1900, as may be judged from newspaper accounts of that time. Newspapers at last were beginning to record what was happening to the Indians in their struggle for readjustment to a culture that had been forced upon them and had inadvertently destroyed their own.

photo p37

Modern Kwakiutl memorial poles in Alert Bay, British Columbia, cemetery (above). Lower sketch shows mortuary pole at Yakutat in 1792 (see text, page 28). [Top photo by Author, sketch from Malaspina’s Viaje Alrededor del Mundo, 1789-1794]

A traveler on the mailboat "Iris" quoted in the Alaskan (Sitka) Jan. 15, 1887 gave a hint of what happened when the first salmon cannery in Alaska was established at Klawock in 1879 and the natives from the surrounding villages flocked there for the employment offered. He wrote: "Leaving Klawock we returned by the way of Tuksekan, a village of the Hanegahs. It is becoming quite dilapidated and is not much used except as a winter home. It has the largest display of totem sticks of any village I have visited…."

The same newspaper under date of July 23, 1887 had this from its Wrangell correspondent: "An Indian named Kadashan is having built a two-story residence on the site of his old house, with two sets of bay windows above and below. The building is a frame one covered with rustic with building paper under it. It will be finished inside with lumber and looks as if it will be one of the nicest in the country. Beat that if you can."

This was the new home of Chief Kadashan whose totempoles until recently stood on Wrangell’s main street where they had been placed after removal from their original site on the beach near the sawmill. Duplicates of these poles are now standing on Shakes Island.

In the Alaskan of May 12, 1888 was this item: "The Elder brought from Metlakahtla two old totem poles consigned to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, for the Sitka Museum. It seems that formerly the people now living at Port Tongass resided at Port Chester. Fifty years ago a party of Stickeens attacked and defeated them. The village was burned and the people driven away. The totem poles alone seemed to have escaped the fire. Last summer, when the Metlakahtlans took possession of the place, they found a few still standing. Having no interest in them, the poles were gradually being destroyed. The best two remaining were secured for the Museum."

The Kake natives, always jealous of their tribal institutions, were still carving memorial poles as late as 1895. An item appearing in the Alaska Searchlight (Juneau), Dec. 21, 1895 stated: "The Mayflower returned from Kake Tuesday night. The Kake Indians erected a large and elaborately carved totem last Monday in honor of a dead chief and were indulging in the usual potlatch. A large number of natives w ere present but everyone seemed disposed to be peaceable."

About ten years later a well-meaning missionary, gaining the backing of the village elders, had practically every totempole in Kake chopped down and burned. The few that survived were destroyed when Kake village burned in 1926.

On Febraury 29, 1896 the Alaskan published an extract from a letter by Dr. Thwing of Wrangell as follows: "This winter there has been a very general feeling of suspense and expectancy in view of the great feast and intertribal dance for which Chief Shakes has been preparing for a year or two. To dignify a living son, and commemorate one dead, there has been a new totem pole carved, and the Tongass natives have been called to dance and feast here. These guests arrived February 1st, and were received with great honor and much noise."

This is the "Raven" pole still standing in Wrangell and in good repair despite its roundly fifty years. However, this pole has been repaired and repainted from time to time, a fact that has aided immeasurable in its preservation.

The so-called Kiksadi pole, one of the most popular in Alaska, was set up in Wrangell in 1900 or 1901 before the Sun House. In the record of the probate proceedings in the estate of "Caltine" (Kolteen), the widow waived her rights to the house "in consideration of certain debts having been assumed by Willis Hoagland, the lineal chieftain, and the further consideration of having a totem erected to the honor of my husband and his gens…." This agreement was signed February 11th, 1895 and the totem was raised some years later.

The Mining Journal of Ketchikan, issue of Jan. 18, 1902 gave evidence that totempoles were being carved there after the turn of the century although it is difficult to determine just which poles are referred to. The item is as follows: "The natives have about completed a new totem pole, which they intend erecting at the foot of Main street as soon as the finishing touches can be applied. Another of the same pattern is being built in Indian town."

Chief Johnson’s pole was carved at about that time but there is no record of another of the same pattern being carved.

Totempole carving reached the natives of the upper Skeena river much later than it did the coastal Tsimshians, Haidas and Southern Tlingit and was consequently carried on longer; in fact, until quite recently. The Kwakiutl and Nootka natives also got a late start, none of the fine cluster at Alert Bay having been carved prior to 1890. Here too, several have been put up in the last ten or fifteen years. But in nearly all cases, if not all, the original function of the totempole is now discontinued and no totempoles are carved except for sale to white people or in rehabilitation programs which are reviewed in Chapter XI.

<<Chapter I<<

 

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