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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Native Lives and Traditions
Totem Pole Restoration Project
By Tricia Brown Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

After his inauguration in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt focused the first 90 days of his presidency on pushing through several pieces of important legislation to help unemployed Americans. One of them, the Emergency Conservation Work Act (ECW), was the law that directed the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Passed in March 1933, the act offered the dual purpose of putting young men to work as well as revitalizing the nation's public lands and properties. In the Lower 48, enrollees age 18 to 23 were housed, fed, and received $1 a day, and $25 per month was sent directly to their families. Across the nation, workers built trails and bridges, dams and roads. Architects, tradesmen, and craftsmen designed and built great lodges in national parks, and filled them with custom furniture, paintings, ironwork, and stained glass, all in the distinctive Art Deco style of the period.

In Alaska, the program took a different turn. The age requirements were dropped and while some undertakings were similar to work elsewhere in the country, most Alaska work projects were unique, including upgrades at the Annette Island Air Field, wolf trapping and predator control, graveyard rehabilitation in Nulato, and construction of reindeer herders' shelters in Western Alaska and sled dog kennels at Mount McKinley National Park. By 1936 more than a thousand Alaskans were working in various CCC programs through Forest Service employment. Two years later, one of the most valuable, long-lasting contributions to Native Alaskan history and culture was launched in the specialized work of CCC-funded totem pole restoration and preservation.

Early in the 1900s, private citizens as well as politicians who saw the deterioration of aged totem poles began calling for assistance. Because many of the oldest poles could be found throughout the Forest Service jurisdiction, agency leaders felt responsible to preserve the valuable carvings. Headquartered in Juneau, Regional Forester B. Frank Heintzleman undertook the CCC Alaska Region program to retrieve, restore, or replicate select totem poles beginning in 1938. (Later, during the mid-1950s, Heintzleman would serve as territorial governor of Alaska, following his appointment by President Eisenhower.)

Throughout the southern region of the Alaska Panhandle, crews were sent to Tlingit and Haida villages, some of which were no longer occupied, to catalog and/or collect the totems before they were no longer reparable. In some instances, if a pole was too far gone to move, carvers planned to replicate it. In Hydaburg, Ketchikan, and Saxman, workers restored clan houses and totem poles, creating totem pole parks. While the parks' poles were aesthetically and culturally authentic, their display -- studding the grounds in an outdoor museum -- would have been considered non-traditional a century earlier. In a typical village, they would have stood before a home, a clan house, or near a grave. When possible, workers also collected stories associated with the poles, and transcribed the Tlingit and Haida legends given to them. In all, the CCC crews completed work at Howkan, Hydaburg, Kake, Ketchikan, Klawock, Klinkwan, Mud Bight, Old Cape Fox Village, Old Tongass Village, Pennick Island, Saxman, Old Kasaan and Sitka National Monuments, Sukkwan, Old Tuxekan Village, Shakes Island, Village Island, and Wrangell.

One part of the plan involved building a model Native village, called Mud Bight Village, just outside Ketchikan, where visitors could learn more about the first people of Southeast. The proposed plans for a complete village were thwarted when World War II began, and it was scaled down into a totem pole park. Its name was changed to Totem Bight Park, and it featured a collection of 14 totems, old and new, and a model clan house. Today it is known as Totem Bight Historical State Park.

At Mud Bight, some poles were restored while some were newly designed and carved. The carving crews were led by Tlingit Charles Brown or Haida carver John Wallace. Wallace was then nearly 80 years old and was the sole craftsmen who had experience in carving totem poles. Brown was a boat-builder who proved to be an exquisite carver. His replica and original work also stands today in Saxman Totem Park, outside Ketchikan, and as far away as Seattle's Pioneer Square. Both men were intent on seeing the carving tradition pass on to future generations. The lead carvers directed those who initially had no experience, effectively teaching the carving tradition with the benefit of a regular paycheck.

In 1989, anthropologist and author Aldona Jonaitis wrote about the effects of Roosevelt's New Deal plans on the art of southeastern Alaska when she was with the American Museum of Natural History: "In all, the CCC project employed about 250 Indians and restored 48 poles, copied 54 that were beyond salvage, and created 19 anew. Because of this project, Ketchikan now has the largest number of totem poles of any easily accessible Northwest Coast community."

To commemorate the CCC carvers and laborers, as well as the partnerships among the U.S. Forest Service and Native agencies and people, nearly 60 years after the project was launched, the USFS hired Tlingit carver Israel Shotridge to design and carve a special totem pole for installation in the agency's "Hall of Tribal Nations" exhibit at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

From the start of the totem restoration program in July 1938 to its end in June 1942, CCC spending equaled about $170,000. For participating Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian carvers, the benefits were immeasurable, as the intent study of the old poles and their original locations, along with hands-on training, helped to boost a cultural resurgence that was already blooming among the people.

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Gallery of Images
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Grave markers and houses
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Killer Whale carving
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Totem at Howkan
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Eagle grave marker
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Regional Forester with the Forest Service
Click here for all 10 photos in this gallery.

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