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‘Proud Raven, Panting Wolf’ — A History of Totem Poles in Alaska

A New Deal program to restore Totem Poles in Alaska provided jobs and boosted tourism, but it ignored their history and significance within Native culture.

Have you ever gone past a Totem Pole and thought: silly, weird, even Disneyland-esque? True, the black, red, and blue-green coloration against the tall brown cedar post is iconic, along with creatures popping eyes, bird-like figures staring, and stacked out-of-proportion humans, all puzzling viewers.

Emily Moore’s book ‘Proud Raven, Panting Wolf’ explains why Totems are still up and thriving as tourist attractions, and how Tlingit/Haida historical/cultural heritage works that might have been overlooked if they had not been rounded up and placed into parks.

In Southeast Alaska, between 1938-1942, the Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) under Roosevelt’s New Deal restored and replicated Totems which were then planted in European style parks, as a way to employ those in the Pacific Northwest in need of jobs, boost tourism, all with little regard for any cultural significance. And like many government programs, what was cooked up in Washington was idealistic, but would evolve quite differently when put into actual operation in situ. Ironically, the project propelled Totems into the 21st Century as an art form.

Totem Poles are oral histories, sign posts of individual clans (Tlingit and Haida) found in Alaska’s panhandle (and in Canada). Moore explains these structures as, “mortuary and memorial poles for the dead, heraldic poles that recall stories of clan history or the origins of world phenomena, house frontal and interior posts that identify the house’s resident clan, and ridicule poles to shame another clan or person for an unresolved offense. All of these poles display crests—images of animals or other entities that ancestors encountered and earned the right (sometimes through their own death) to claim for their clans as identifying symbols (Moore 6-7).” The American story, ‘sea to shining sea’ has been embedded with cruelty to aboriginals. However, around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Native American craft making/art was elevated/glorified, not only to be collected but, hypocritically, admired as statuary and friezes on government buildings, becoming synonymous with US culture, which grabbed a needed identity in the face of older European aesthetics.

In the late 19th century, steamships carried tourists to Alaska. Travelers wanted souvenirs, which they bought onshore from Natives, or knock-offs sold in Seattle’s ‘Ye Old Curiosity Shop’ (still operating). In the early 20th century, Totems were displayed at World Fairs, further fascinating the public. However, if you were a scion like Edward Harriman, you could paddle your own yacht through the Inside Passage, and rationalize that pillaging for scientific research wasn’t theft. In 1936, a New Deal agency, the Indian Arts and Craft Board, under the auspices of Rene d’Harnoncourt, promoted quality craftwork versus tourist schlock, striving to give Natives a decent income and, “to help people realize that Indian arts and crafts are more than just curiosities (Moore143).”