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North to Alaska II: In Ketchikan, totem poles await visitors

By Janice Edwards/ The Bulletin

The free bus ride in Ketchikan took us by the tourist traps, but we decided to explore the Totem Heritage Center. The route around the city made us note something unusual – there weren’t many roads in this or any of the coastal ports of call we visited.

In fact, they all shared the phenomenon that no roads traveled into the interior of Alaska or from one town to another. Turns out that this was partially because legislation passed in 2001 prevented cutting new roads through the old growth forests to help preserve the entire ecosystem of the Tongass instead of just one species therein.

The only way to get to these cities was by boat or float plane. That’s why these coastal towns remained remote and wild. That is, except when the cruise ships visit during the summer season.

Up to five of them can dock at one time, and with over 2,000 visitors in each ship, it’s easy to see how the quaint fishing villages could lose their appeal. It also explains why we did not eat more Alaskan wild caught fish and crabs during the cruise – it would take a whole lot of it to feed 10,000 people.

But back to the Totem Heritage Center. The center houses a collection of 19th-century totem poles retrieved in the 1970s from the Tlingit villages on Tongass Island and Village Island and from the Haida village of Old Kasaan on Prince Wales Island. These native people moved to Ketchikan and other towns to be closer to schools, churches, and employment at the beginning of the 20th century.

The retrieval of these poles was overseen by Native elders, Alaska State Museum, the Alaska Brotherhood with technical assistance from the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Forest service and were preserved as they were found.

These poles were carved mainly from red cedar and were created by the First Nations artists during the height of totem pole carving on the Northwest Coast from between the middle to end of the 19th century. Some of the details have been lost due to decay over time and exposure to natural elements.

Totem poles were made to fill a variety of needs, but their main purposes were to commemorate people or special events.

The word totem is derived from the Ojibwe word “odoodern” meaning “his kinship group.”

Totem poles were not worshipped, but they inspired respect and were erected in front of a home to show the ancestry and social rank of the family.

In a way, totem poles were the social media of the day and said something about the owner’s status. The mythical creatures and humans carved into the poles told a story. The poles were built in three portions with the bottom portion being the most significant. The poles were read from the bottom to the top with the top portion displaying a flamboyant mythical creature associated with the clan.

And like social media today, they were not designed to last forever, but disintegrate over time.

One of the creatures on a totem pole that attracted my attention was a giant raven’s head. The raven was an important creature to the northwest natives, and many stories were told about it.

I’ll pick up one of those stories and touch on the next leg of our journey, cruising Tracy Arm Fjord, in my next installment.

Next installment on July 9. Next week: S.F. Austin surprise.

(Photo by Janice Edwards)

(Jan wants to hear from you. Write her in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)