There is an aspect of Northwest travel that I have completely avoided for no reason–totem poles. They are everywhere you go when you’re on your way to Alaska while cruising the Inside Passage. Emily Carr, the great Canadian painter, focused on deteriorating ones in her art. We met a doctor at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver who had been to the former Queen Charlotte Islands, now a repository of native culture and a place to study totem poles by the score, and she talked about them being everywhere she went. She encourage Ruth & me to go and see them like she had. We saw hundreds of totem poles as we made our way to Alaska. What is more important than totem poles as a symbol of culture while one learns about the native people of Canada and the US? Nothing. So I had to write about them.
Totem poles, those ubiquitous examples of Northwest culture, are certainly misunderstood. We first focused on the many totem poles installed in Stanley Park before even getting on the ship to where they are everywhere. Most believe that they are worshipped religious items outside the homes of native tribes from Vancouver to Alaska and beyond. This would not be completely accurate. Experts differ on the use and importance of totem poles to the various tribes who installed them. Most claim there are 8 or 9 reasons for their use. Some were carved to honor important tribal members. Some claim that most totems record important events. Most agree that the history of totems speaks of the lineage of the people in the dwellings behind the poles. All totem poles seem to record particular animals important to tribal members and are carved cedar logs that stand 20 to 30 feet high outside homes. They are clearly works of art and critical to understanding the humans who erected them and then watched their colors fade. Almost all totem poles focus on an animal important to the social group inside the dwelling behind them like an eagle, a raven, or a wild sea creature often seen. Totem poles accurately tell about people, perhaps those who have died and\or events that the group considers critical to their existence. I began considering totems and hoped to show that they are different from each other, but they are actually quite similar and the symbolic nature of the icons on them is fairly universal.
Ketchikan was our first stop where there were many totems to see. They were basically in 3 spots around this town but perhaps the most important of these was the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center. In Wrangell totems could be seen at the Kiksadi Totem Park and in its main museum that also has a tribute to Wyatt Earp who was once marshal there. In Sitka and Haines there were totems at both Sheldon Museums. It was not hard to find totem poles everywhere Ruth & I went.