-----An amazing people settled the coastal region of Southeast Alaska. The essence of their artistic culture can be experienced through their totem poles.


-----Totem poles were carved and erected by Native Americans from SE Alaska to Puget Sound. Our first personal experience with totem poles was in Ketchikan many years ago. A local resident dropped us off in the totem park just before sundown. For the last hours of fading summer light, we wandered among the strange carvings of birds, frogs, ravens, eagles, and unidentifiable creatures. Huge oval eyes stared at us from the wood, great beaks pierced the evening sky, and gigantic teeth glared white in the gathering dusk. We felt the power of those spirits, the grandeur imparted by the carvers and the shamans. Who were these spirit/creatures, did they have names, what stories did they tell? Surely, they are the artistic quintessence of a complex culture. We have been fascinated by totem poles since that twilight experience long ago.

-----My brother, the archeologist in the family, tells us that a totem is a symbol - it represents the spiritual and personal identity of an individual, a clan, or a culture. The symbol often is an animal, a plant, a mythical creature, or a geographical entity that is held in awe, reverence, or fear. By this definition, only some of the 'totem' poles of the northwest are 'truly' totemic. Others represent legends, social or personal history, or commemorate a deceased person. Such poles may or may not contain totemic meaning.

-----The earliest North American people probably arrived on this continent during or just after the last Ice Age, or somewhat more than 12,000 years ago, from eastern Asia. These were the hunters of the Pleistocene megafauna, the huge animals that co-existed with the continental glaciers - Ice Bears, Mammoths, Mastodons, Giant Sloths, Dire Wolves … These peoples, and others who followed them, eventually explored westerly down the great river valleys that traversed the coastal ranges of the continent. Perhaps some arrived by water, paddling southerly along the coasts, living and settling among the abundant resource of the sea. The legends of the present-day Native dwellers of Southeast Alaska relate their arrival to the coast by descending the river valleys.

-----One tale tells of meeting a great ice sheet that covered the valley. The river flowed through a tunnel into the ice and emerged downstream. Was it safe to paddle their boats through the tunnel? After long debate, they placed some of the old ones into boats, and launched them into the maw of the shiny crystalline tunnel. The tribe ran up the mountainside to see what would emerge from the tunnel's exit far below. Fortunately, for both the tribe and the old timers, the canoes and contents emerged unscathed. Soon, all the tribe followed.

-----These people settled the coastal regions of today's Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Through time, they evolved a culture unlike any other on the continent, utilizing the abundant resources of the temperate rain forest and the life-laden sea. Extended families lived in a village and soon acquired an identity, skills, legends, and experiences somewhat different from that of other villages. Such groups identified themselves with specific totems - the Bear, Eagle, or Raven, for instance - and evolved into tribes with unique customs and identities. They spoke seven different languages and many more dialects, representing different history or cultural evolution. Most tribes believed they were The People, superior to all other humans with whom they had contact. The two groups most often associated with carved columns in Southeast Alaska are the Tlingits (with fourteen lineages or villages in recent times). The Haida were seafarers, whose cultural heart lay in the Queen Charlotte Islands off present British Columbia, although one group settled on Prince of Wales Island in present Alaska. They were marauding warriors and much feared by their mainland neighbors. They were wealthy, artistic, and aggressive. They built huge lodges and monumental totem poles in extensive villages.

-----Wealth, for these peoples, was acquired from land and sea, and its acquisition represented power and status. Territories containing food, such as clam beds, hunting areas, sea lion rookeries, salmon rivers, or berry patches were coveted and fought over by individuals as well as clans. The acquisition of wealth was the basis of their culture. Trading and gift giving (potlatch) from their accumulated wealth gave prestige, status, and political power. Wealth spurred carving, and during historic times, the carving of columns spread through out the region.


-----The oldest and simplest pole is the Memorial Pole. It is a simple, tall, unembellished straight pole. It is crowned by a single figure that represents the leader's clan.

-----Some columns, Mortuary Poles, contained a hollowed-out space used to inter the remains of an individual. They are often more ornately carved than a simple Memorial Pole and demonstrate the wealth or status of the deceased. They are often wider at the top than the base to accommodate the crypt.

-----A carved House Pole served as roof support for a house and displayed the lineage of the owner. These poles are short, stocky, and more ornate than Memorial Poles. They often lasted for generations since they were inside a covered house.

-----The poles most often photographed and most widely-known are Legend Poles. They tell a story, mythic or historical, about their owner or clan. Some, the Crest Poles, celebrate the ancestry of the individual. Such poles were only erected for the most wealthy or important persons of the community.
















Mythical Creatures - Watchful and Fog Woman




Historical - Russian Double Eagle & Missionary



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