XI Totem Restoration
Had the monuments of the Northwest Coast been carved of stone instead of wood, the problem of restoration might have rested until sometime in the next millennium. In fact, had even the circumstances attendant to the raising of these graven pillars been different, there is no question but that they could have been preserved a hundred years or more beyond their natural lifetime. Or had the culture that called them into being been continued, new and finer totems would have rendered unnecessary the preservation of the others.
Such, however, was not to be the case.
As has been brought out earlier, a totempole was carved and erected with great ceremony and at tremendous expense. Once he had acquitted himself of all obligations attendant to the raising of a memorial, the chief was not required or even expected to repair the pole. If he did desire to repaint, move, reset or otherwise alter a memorial once erected he could not do so except through the medium of a potlatch and at the same expense as though he were erecting a new pole. All work would have to be done by members of the opposite phratry, who would be paid for their work. Guests would attend the alteration ceremony out of courtesy and would receive presents from the host.
It is manifestly clear that even in earlier times there was little, if any, incentive for the preservation of totempoles since anything done was done only at great expense and added nothing to the prestige of the owner. To do something to restore the totempole of a predecessor would likewise in no way enhance the reputation of the individual interested in preserving the monument.
The net result was that through the conspiracy of climate and social usage a cedar totempole could hardly be expected to stand much longer than the man it honored. So long as new poles replaced those rotting away there seemed no need to be concerned lest this unique art disappear from the earth. Yet when totem-carving practically ceased at the turn of the century, it was plain that unless something was done soon to preserve those monuments left standing, it would be but a question of a few years when there would not be a single totempole left standing in situ in the whole Northwest Coast.
While a great many totempoles had been removed from their original settings to grace the parks and museums of the United States, Canada, Alaska and even Europe, the first recorded instance of an effort to preserve totem clusters in Alaska, intact, was in Sitka. A "Public Park" was created there by proclamation on June 21, 1890 on the site of the old "Kikisadi" Indian village where in 1804 the battle for Sitka was won by the Russians and where a cluster of totempoles stood. This park became the "Sitka National Monument" on March 23, 1910 by the executive order of President William Howard Taft because "under general laws of Alaska it has been found difficult to prevent vandalism within the area."
The National Monument of Old Kasaan was originally established by executive order in 1907 amplified by the Presidential Proclamation of Oct. 25, 1916. The Monument contains an area of some 40 acres embracing the Haida village of Kasaan on Skowl Arm of Kasaan Bay. It is about 40 miles east of Ketchikan on Prince of Wales Island. The village, deserted since 1900, contained many fine totempoles and the ruins of community houses.
In the spring of 1926 Dr. H. W. Krieger of the U. S. National Museum, on loan to the Bureau of American Ethnology, was detailed to inspect the houses and totempoles at Old Kasaan with a view to their preservation. He found many poles beyond repair but the remaining monuments were scraped and treated with creosote. He did not consider the expense of repainting the poles justified "unless tourist travel should increase materially and a caretaker could be maintained to keep down the alders and salmonberry brush so as to prevent any future danger of destruction by fire during the short dry season in the fall of the year."
The late Honorable Judge James Wickersham as early as 1920 started a movement aimed at the preservation of the totem monuments at Port Tongass, where the Abraham Lincoln totem stood. In 1923 on the occasion of President Harding’s visit to Alaska, he sought to have the President’s itinerary altered to include a visit to that historic spot. He held the conviction that if President Harding could but see the Emancipator’s totem he would order the island made a National Monument. The itinerary, however, was not changed and the Lincoln totempole, together with the rest, continued to decay unseen sixteen years longer.
About the same time (1920) General James Gordon Steese, then President of the Alaska Road Commission, upon finding several of the Sitka totempoles down, initiated a movement to have the poles raised and repainted. At his request, and through the office of Alaska’s Governor Thomas Riggs, $200 was appropriated (1921) for this work by the National Park Service and the job was supervised by the Alaska Road Commission.
In the years intervening between 1921 and 1938 restoration of Alaska’s totempoles was a sporadic enterprise carried out by a few far-seeing individuals in their own communities or by local service clubs such as the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce and the Ketchikan American Legion Post. The late Walter Waters of Wrangell purchased several poles and totem figures and moved them from deserted West Coast villages to Wrangell where they may still be seen. Some he preserved from dry rot by the liberal use of rock salt introduced through holes bored in the top. Others, already badly rotted, he repaired by removing the rotted wood, refilling the cavities with concrete, and repainting. Although still having a natural appearance, some eventually contained more concrete than wood, thus are likely to achieve immortality in the "concrete" form.
Since the Totempolar Region of Alaska is entirely within the confines of the Tongass National Forest it early became apparent that any concerted effort to restore the totems left standing in deserted villages would be under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Forest Service, which was excellently staffed for this sort of undertaking and had the necessary boats, shops, tools and equipment as well.
In 1921 Regional Forester Charles Flory in a letter to his Chief lamented deterioration of the totempoles and recommended moving them to a central location for rehabilitation. Four years later he addressed a similar letter to Gov. George Parks. No action was taken in either instance and the matter rested until 1934 when Flory reviewed the past correspondence and recommended that natives be used under some relief act to move and rehabilitate the totems. Lengthy discussions of the matter followed but no project crystallized out of the mass of paper work.
In February 1937, Dr. Ernest Gruening, then director of Territories and Insular Possessions, reopened the question by recommending to Chief Forester Silcox that something be done to preserve the poles. During the greater part of the next two years the Forest Service collected data on location and condition of existing totempoles and community houses, the rightful owners of them and ways and means of securing title so that they could be moved to various centers for rehabilitation if and when such a project be instituted.
The program of Totem Restoration was actually initiated as a C.C.C. project in July, 1938 by Regional Forester B. Frank Heintzleman, who was director for the Alaska C.C.C. In addition to $127,492 of C.C.C. funds, $42,878 was expended from funds of the Emergency Relief Administration under direction of the C.C.C. officials.
In the project, which did not formally close until June 30, 1942, approximately 250 Indians were employed. Totempoles from Cape Fox, Old Tongass Village, Village Island, Pennock Island, Old Kasaan, Sukkwan, Klinkwan, Howkan, Tuxekan, Seattle, Sitka, Wrangell and Ketchikan were removed for restoration or duplication. It is interesting to note here that Seattle’s famous Pioneer’s Square totempole, purloined in 1899, was duplicated for Seattle by the descendants of the Indians from whom it was stolen on that memorable "Good Will’ excursion.
Since many of the above sites were in hidden "canoe harbors" seldom visited by anyone, most of the renovated poles were set up in clusters in more accessible places, often in the towns where the descendants of the old totem carvers now reside. Hence, clusters were placed at New Kasaan, Saxman, Totem Bight (near Ketchikan), Hydaburg, Klawock, Wrangell and Sitka, forming unique totem parks in those communities.
Individual totems were set up in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, Old Auk Village site, Sitka and Seattle. In all, 48 old poles were restored, another 54 beyond restoration were duplicated by native artists and 19 poles which existed only in memory were carved anew. Besides this, three Indian Community houses were duplicated, one at Mud Bight, Ketchikan, another at Kasaan and a third on Shakes Island, Wrangell harbor.
Although the project was initiated, directed and carried out by the U.S. Forest Service, it had the co-operation of the U.S. Indian Service, the Governor’s Office, many other interested public agencies and individuals, both white and native. Through it a cross-section of the most remarkable art in America has been preserved for public enjoyment for many years to come.
One fact demonstrated by the Forest Service project and in native art projects at Wrangell Institute, Sheldon Jackson School and the Ketchikan Indian School is that the art of totem-carving is not dead. Natives of the Northwest Coast have an innate artistic sense and are natural-born wood workers. Given a new incentive and a fair recompense there is no question but that a great contribution to the plastic art of America could again come from the Northwest Coast.
In the Canadian section of the Totempolar Region, restoration projects have been carried on to a certain extent for more than fifty years. Up until 1925 the policy was to acquire totempoles from deserted villages in out-of-the-way places and bring them to Victoria or Vancouver where they would be restored, then placed in storage, in Museums or in public parks. British Columbia was fortunate in having within the confines of its borders the principal seats of all the totem-carving tribes except the Tlingit. Thus it has been able to restore a much more representative display than could be had in Alaska where only the Tlingit and Kaigani-Haidas carved these monuments.
Prominent in the work of totem preservation and restoration in Canada is the Art, Historical and Scientific Association of Vancouver. Founded originally in 1889 it took on its present form in 1894. Besides operating the Vancouver Public Museum, the Association is responsible for placing the totempoles in Stanley Park. Of these, the first were obtained in 1926 and set up by the Parks Board at "Lumberman’s Arch." The "Chief Wakius" pole from Alert Bay was purchased for $700, the funds being raised by popular subscription. The "Sisa-kaulas" pole from Kingcombe Inlet was presented by Mr. W.C. Shelly, a Parks Board member. Two house posts were also set up at that time.
On the occasion of Vancouver’s Golden Jubilee the Thunderbird pole was set up at Prospect Point and the "Dsoo-kwa-dsi," "Nhe-is-bik," and "Ske-dans" poles added to the cluster at Lumberman’s Arch. These poles were presented to the City of Vancouver on August 25, 1936, jointly by the Jubilee Committee and the Indian Department.
All of these poles are of Kwakiutl origin except the Ske-dans mortuary pole which is Haida, having been erected originally at Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands, about eighty years ago.
The most ambitious totem restoration project conducted in British Columbia was for the preservation of the totempoles along the Skeena River. Begun in 1925 and carried on through 1926, the project was the joint enterprise of Canadian Indian Affairs, Mines, National Parks, and National Museum with the co-operation of the Canadian National Railways. The Department of Indian Affairs defrayed all the running expenses and the National Railways supplied quantities of material free of charge plus the services of a special engineer.
Due to the fact that Canada had outlawed the "Potlatch," thus indirectly prohibiting the erection of totempoles, the party had considerable initial difficulty with the Indians in securing permission to restore the poles. "Why, they asked, "do you wish to preserve totempoles which only a few years ago you forbid us to erect?"
Good will and consent were eventually gained and the work commenced.
Although the freshly-painted poles appeared gaudy at first, they soon faded, restoring the original and much-desired archaic appearance.
Nowhere on the Coast has such effective use been made of cedar monuments as in Prince Rupert where handsome Haida poles have been set with great artistry amid the rocky hillocks which account for much of that city’s wild beauty. In this instance the City Council, the Indian Office and the Canadian National Railways worked together. Mr. J. Gillett, Indian Agent, selected the poles from the villages of Skidegate and Massett. Canadian National Steamships brought the poles to Prince Rupert in 1935 free of charge. The City Council financed rehabilitation and erection, the painting being done by William Beynon, well-known as an authority on local Indian customs. Thirteen poles in all were erected, among them the Edenshaw pole from Massett, possibly the widest pole ever erected, and another which would rank among the very tallest. Lately several more have been brought in from the Islands.
The latest restoration project of British Columbia totempoles was accomplished in 1940-41 resulting in the establishing of "Thunderbird Park" in the capital city of Victoria.
There are still remaining many totempoles which, if beyond restoration, should at least, and by all means, be duplicated, for the time is not far distant when these monuments will be considered a resource as important to Southeastern Alaska and Coastal British Columbia as the pyramids are to Egypt or the ruins of ancient Rome to modern Italy. The significant fact is simply that no other place in the whole world has totempoles; people will come from far and wide to see them…as long as they remain.