"" Writer's Wanderings: Ketchikan's Totem Poles

Friday, September 20, 2013

Ketchikan's Totem Poles

Chief Kyan Totem Pole
As you wander the streets and guided trails of Ketchikan, Alaska, you will find yourself face to face with several totem poles. Each has a unique story behind it. And remember the old saying, "Low man on the totem pole?" It was actually a place of honor rather than what the saying suggests. So what is the story behind these works of art?

Totem poles were carved for several reasons: to honor deceased ancestors, record history, social events and oral traditions. They were never objects of worship.

One of my pictures shows the Chief Kyan Totem Pole. It is actually a replica of the original which was carved in the late 1800s. The figures on the totem pole are the Crane which represents the chief's wife, the Thunderbird representing his wife's clan, and the Brown Bear which was the crest of Chief George Kyan. His Tlingil name was Yaansein and he was a member of the Wolf Clan and the Tantakwaan Tribe. The chief sold 160 acres to Mike Martin whose fish camp and other business ventures led to the incorporation of Ketchikan.

Chief Johnson Totem Pole
Near the entrance to Creek Street is the Chief Johnson totem pole which stands 55 feet tall and is carved from a single western red cedar. It depicts the legend of Fog Woman and the creation of salmon. You can find the story at the website of Israel Shotridge who has done many of the replica carvings displayed outdoors in Ketchikan.

To view some of the original totem poles, you need to go the to Totem Heritage Center. There are also pictures there of the villages from which the originals were retrieved and now are preserved in climate controlled displays.

So next time someone tries to tell you that you're low man on the totem pole take it as a compliment. The most honored place is there for many reasons. It's the beginning of the story. It's the place where people get the best view of the carving. The master carver always did the bottom leaving his apprentices to work on the top carvings. And in my opinion, it's a place of strength. After all the low man is holding up the rest of the pole.

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