Totem Lost & Found

John Barrymore, left, joked that “tribal gods” might “wreak vengeance on the thief.”

John Barrymore, left, joked that “tribal gods” might “wreak vengeance on the thief.” Courtesy Bill Nelson

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The Tallest Trophy

A movie star made off with an Alaskan totem pole. Would it ever return home?

By Paige Williams

The predominant natives of southeastern Alaska are the Tlingit—the People of the Tides. They are believed to have settled the Panhandle and the Alexander Archipelago more than ten thousand years ago. The Tlingit (pronounced klink-kit) were hunter-gatherers and traders who typically lived on the coastline, moving between permanent winter villages and summer encampments, where they fished, foraged, and stockpiled food. They cremated their dead and marked milestones with lavish ceremonies, until missionaries, in the late nineteenth century, persuaded them to stop.

The Tlingit, at the height of their culture, had about eighty clans, who represented themselves with heraldic crests that almost always featured animals. A crest was considered a clan’s property: the Raven Dog Salmon people could not tell the stories or display the crest of the Wolf Killer Whale people without consequence. Crests were protected to the point of war.

Tlingits placed their crests on almost everything they owned—ladles, blankets, amulets, armor—to express solidarity with their clan and kinship with animals they considered “patrons.” In 1914, Livingston F. Jones, a Presbyterian missionary who spent years among the tribe, wrote that if a Tlingit “puts the image of his patron on his halibut hook, it will help him to have good success; on his paddle, to go safely over the deep; on his spoon, to protect him from poisonous foods; on his house, to bless his family.” Tlingits sometimes depicted clan images on the gabled fronts of their houses, and indoors on decorative wood screens.

They also carved totem poles. First, a carver selected a tall, wide log of Western red cedar, whose soft wood weathers well. He stripped the bark; dried the wood, if it was too damp for carving; and hollowed out one side with fire. The carver then shaped the pole’s face with knives and an adze. Using a brush made of porcupine hair, he painted the pole with mineral-based dyes; Tlingit colors were red, black, and, in moments of extravagance, blue-green. Carvers often sealed the finish with whale fat. A Smithsonian researcher once wrote that Alaska’s totem poles were “as beautiful and interesting as the Parthenon of the old Greeks.”

Poles stood just outside a house. Some rose thirty feet tall. The higher and more ornate the totem pole, the greater the status of its owner—the Tlingit equivalent of a Mercedes in the driveway. Stature was measured in accumulated possessions and in generosity. A Tlingit might spend years gathering pelts, blankets, and weapons, then give them all away in a feast, called a potlatch, which often featured a pole-raising. Before a totem pole went up, the host sometimes had slaves killed and thrown into the posthole. Some poles shamed wrongdoers—a brown bear biting the tail of a killer whale might broadcast an unpaid debt. Others were mortuary monuments holding the remains of the dead.

Totem poles were not objects of religious worship, but Tlingits considered them sacred, because they believed that everything in nature had a spirit, and because the poles commemorated significant people and events. Poles were to be left in place, to weather and eventually return to nature, unless a clan decided otherwise. The Tlingit believed strongly in respecting the landscape. One fable about an island spirit, which a tribal elder shared with Steve Langdon, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, notes, “The island spirit helps those who observe the rules of good conduct and respect for wildlife. Misfortune is sure to come to those who are frivolous. . . . The spirit withdraws his protection from such people, and they are in danger of losing their canoes or their lives.”

It’s unclear exactly when the Tlingit began carving poles. Outsiders first reported seeing them in the eighteenth century, not long after the Haida, skilled carvers from what is now British Columbia, moved into southeastern Alaska. The golden age of totem poles is considered to be the nineteenth century, after Europeans introduced improved iron tools and before whites repressed native customs. By the end of that century, the Tlingit were growing wealthier through fishing and canneries, fur trading, and mining; totem-carving became less dignified as clansmen competed ostentatiously to make ever taller, prettier poles.

Southeastern Alaska contains hundreds of islands cut by a vast network of channels and fjords. The biggest island, Prince of Wales, had the most totem poles, and the village with the greatest number was Tuxecan. In 1916, a researcher counted a hundred and twenty-five poles there, and described them as strikingly elaborate and diverse in their imagery.

Tuxecan occupied a cove on the island’s northwest coast, backed by an ancient grove of cedar, hemlock, and spruce. Photographs from the turn of the twentieth century show a beach lined with rectangular plank houses and canoe runs, and boardwalks traversing gravel shallows. For generations, hundreds of Tlingit wintered there, but around 1900 they relocated south, to Klawock, where a Presbyterian school and Alaska’s first cannery had opened. Tuxecan remained standing, and clansmen visited occasionally, but without inhabitants the village deteriorated, as did its loose forest of totem poles. Some of the poles were taken to Klawock; others remained at Tuxecan, and as they aged they tilted, in a slow-motion game of pick-up sticks, until they fell. Then they were consumed by moss…

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