August 31, 2009

The Enduring Power of Totem Poles

About a year ago, we launched a special Web site called The Enduring Power of Totem Poles. It has since won the 2009 CASE award for best Web site. Anyone who is interested in learning more about the history of totem poles ought to explore the site a bit. You might learn something about totem poles that you did not know, such as:
  • Totem poles, which are defined as free-standing columns with many figures, are not actually indigenous to Washington State. Even though totem pole imagery can be found all over the place in Seattle, it was the northern Northwest Coast groups (Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingit, etc.) that carved totem poles, not the Coast Salish people surrounding the Puget Sound. It’s a common misconception that totem pole carving was practiced near present-day Seattle, but it is not historically or culturally accurate. The totem poles standing outside the Burke Museum are all replicas of poles from Canadian or Alaskan-based tribes.

  • Totem poles are not only historical objects; up and down the Northwest Coast, poles are being raised again in a spirit of cultural survival and revival.

  • The Burke Museum has been very active in the repatriation of poles and other clan treasures that were taken from communities along the Northwest Coast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Enduring Power of Totem Poles tells the story of two of the Teikweidi clan’s houseposts, taken from the Tlingit village of Gaash (Cape Fox, AK) by an American railroad magnate in 1899 and donated to a young Burke Museum. In July 2001, along with four other North American museums, the Burke returned the posts and other clan treasures to the Tlingit people of Cape Fox and acknowledged the wrong that had been done. Two new houseposts were created for the Burke Museum by father and son, Nathan and Stephen Jackson, to replace the two posts that were repatriated and are now on display in the Pacific Voices exhibit.

For more fascinating stories about totem poles and the people who make them, visit the Enduring Power of Totem Poles site:

Posted by: Julia Swan, Communications

Photo: Replica of Tsimshian Memorial Pole, carved by Bill Holm in 1969, now standing in front of the Burke Museum