Totem Bight

Tucked away off a highway near Ketchikan, Alaska, is Totem Bight State Historical Park. It is home to totem poles and a clan house representative of those from the Tlingit and Haida Native Alaskan tribes. On my visit, there are no park rangers present, but there is a pamphlet and signage to allow for a self-guided tour.

The park has its origins in 1938. Native villages and totem poles of Southeast Alaska had eroded, the inhabitants having left for towns to find work. The U.S. Forest Service started a program to salvage the monuments, bringing in elder Natives to teach the art of carving to young artisans.

The site was initially called Mud Bight. The artisans copied the carvings from fragments of old poles, using hand-made tools and paints based on those made from natural materials. By the close of World War II, a clan house and 15 poles had been created, and the name changed to Totem Bight. In 1970 the site earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Retaining the legacy is an ongoing project. In one room, you can see cedar logs prepped for carving, and the park uses modern-day methods to preserve and protect the poles.

Every Totem pole is meaningful, every carving intentional. Tlingit and Haida Native Americans are divided into moieties (matrilineal groups), clans, and house groups. Each pole tells a story of a house group’s history, culture, and lineage.

The ovoid form line is central to the art in totem poles, serving as the head of a human, to help form the shape of a tail, and other uses. The Natives used pigments made from salmon eggs, hematite, clam shells, lichen, graphite, and copper. Black, red, and blue-green are the most common colors.

Totem Bight currently features 13 Totem poles and a clan house. The interior of the house consists of a fireplace surrounded by a platform. As many as 50 people could inhabit a house and would include several families of a particular lineage. Removable floor boards concealed storage for housewares, blankets, and treasured objects, while food was hung from beams and rafters. The families had their own spaces within the house and shared the fire. Totem poles stand at each corner, extending from the beams to the platform.

The park sits on the shores of the Tongass Narrows, a body of water that is part of the Alaska Inside Passage. Though the poles at the park are all replicas of originals that stood at different locations, it is difficult not to get swept away in thought, imagining the Tlingit or Haida people emerging from the clan house, beginning their day, so much of their society centered around topography similar to that found at the park. Thankfully, the beauty and intracity of Totem poles can live on for others to see, providing a window into how some societies expressed their family stories, world views, culture, and religion. Totem Bight is a treasure to explore.

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