Sitka’s Totem Walk

Earlier this summer I posted several pictures of totem poles from Sitka National Historic Park (Totem Park.)  This prompted several comments from friends abroad.  Questions of where the poles came from, how old they where, and questions about their role in religion.

The original poles were gathered in the park after the 1906 St. Louis World’s Fair.   (The meet me in St. Louis, Louis fair).  As they aged they decayed, and would have fallen back to the earth (as they are meant to) but in this park they were preserved, some older poles are on display in the visitor’s center.  In the 1930s some of the older poles were re-carved, and more recently others of the poles have been recarved.  Recently, using laser technology, the Park Service has “mapped” the poles and is creating accurate diagrams of each pole.

But the park is a living place.  Newer poles commemorate statehood, the 200th anniversary of the 2004 “Battle of Alaska” fought on this site between the Russians and Tlingit, and the Park Service have been added.  So the park is part of a living tradition.  “Art in perfect harmony with nature,” as one Albanian friend posted.  The cedar poles do seem to belong in the rainforest setting.

Getting to the topic of religion, the poles are commemorations, carved history, not items for worship.  They also can shame, warn or celebrate.  One pole in this set of pictures shows a white man with a beard.  He is a merchant and this pole warns people to stay away from him, he cheats.  The wonderful thing is the merchant probably seeing himself at the “high man on the totem pole” thought he was being honored.  One pole, only a few years old, features the striking face of a woman, not usual, as the tradition lives and changes.

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