SITKA BOROUGH,

ALASKA GENWEB PROJECT

 

 
TOTEMS
 
 

Totem poles are everywhere in this part of the world - lurking in primeval forests, planted in local cemeteries, decorating cheap motels, even poking out from tourist-happy McDonalds. Many indigenous peoples have long used these intricate sculptures both to honor each other and to transmit over a thousand years of history and culture; some mortuary poles even contain ancestors' ashes. Each of the figures vertically stacked on the totem has a specific signigicance, depending on the artiest's tribe.

Sadly, the totem tradition almost died out when early-day missionaries visited Southeastern Alaska's native villages and assumed mistakenly, that the poles were pagan symbols. There were tragedies, as in Kake, in 1926, when zealous missionaries persuaded the docile villagers of Kupreanof Island to cut down and burn their totems. Much of the credit for preserving Alaska's native arts goes to the U.S. Forest Service and a Depression-era federal program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps -- the CCC. By 1938, only a few forgotten totems remained in villages along the waterways of Southeastern Alaska. What followed was a totem roundup. Linn A. Forrest, an Alaska-based forest service architect, led an effort to collect the totems. CCC funds paid for more than 200 native carvers and laborers to restore and replicate the prized poles. Some were beyond repair; others had to be recarved from memory.

Totems tell stories. There are totems for clan histories, major events, deaths -- even ridicule. Subtle, dramatic symbols -- eagles, ravens, wolves, bears, killer whales and other wild things -- tell the totem tales. The designs, a fusion of the natural and supernatural worlds, are like crests, proclaiming achievements of families and their ancestors. The following symbols represent local Haida and Tlingit myths:

SYMBOL

MEANING

Raven One of the most important clan symbols, it is identified by its straight beak. When the world was dark, Raven stole the sun from an old chief, and is often depicted with an orb in his beak.Powerful, ever-transforming trickster; ever hungry; ever curious; deviant; compulsive; crooked, corrupt and deceptive but somehow likeable; ever politically incorrect. It is the Creator of humans.
Bear Can easily transform into a human; must not be insulted/cursed; lumbering, caring figure with a yen to marry good-looking human princesses; has twin children who grow to adulthood in record time; able to make fires with wet sticks (Bear wood) Remarkably similar to Wolf, with sharp teeth and a high forehead. Both caused a lot of trouble (and still do) in their relationships with humans.
Bear-Mother With on cub between her ears and another between her legs, she links the tribes of Eagle and Raven. Bear has large paws and often a protruding tongue.
Beaver Distinguished by a flat tail and two large front teeth. Beaver is often associated with Eagle. Vengeful creature; occasionally murders humans; if provoked digs underground tunnels that cause earthquakes and landslides; constructs fine arrows
Copper Woman Ever-interfering, social climbing wife of Komowkwa, the Underwater King of copper smelting; grants wealth to her personal favorites; particular friend of Frog; causes volcanic eruptions disguised as Volcano Woman
Dzunkwa (Tsnoqua) Cannibal woman who owns certain valuable treasures that humans like to steal; lives on the Earth Realm; smells awful; collects children but they often get away; dull-witted; cannot be killed
Eagle The second most important mythological gifure, signifying peace and friendship. His downward-curving hooked beak distinguishes him from Raven. Aristocratic lord of the Sky Realm; part of Thunderbird's entourage or live with other lordly Eagles; occasionally transforms into a human dancer
Frog Frog has a wide, toothless mouth and flat nose. Much misunderstood and underestimated; associated with great wealth; survives volcanic eruptions; must not be insulted; friend of Copper Woman.
Hawk Transforms regularly into Hawk Woman or Hawk Man; hates Mosquitoes; quite regal; stand-offish but will assist humans
Killer Whale (Kwakiutl) Often shown with a seal in its mouth, the large-finned and razor-toothed orca stands for strength.
Kolus Thunderbird's dull-witted brother; a show off; competitive; strong; will occasionally transport huge longhouse beams for humans
Mosquito Arose from the transformed remains of chopped-up cannibal beings; it continues to love blood
Sea Serpent (Siskiutl) Bravery in war. Can turn enemy warriors into stone with one glance; has been known to swiftly pull huge war canoes to the site of a battle; protects his crestholders from injury during war; has removable crystal eyes; hates Thunderbirds (his enemy)
Thunderbird Grand lord of the Sky Realm; frightens humans who disturb him; needs homage; busy with his own wars carried out beyond human perception; eats Whales; likes to come to human's dance ceremonies. Often placed on top of totem pole.
Whale Ruler of His own Underwater City; lives with noble supernatural beings there; hates Thunderbirds; some turn into Wolves
Wolf Powerful; generally avoids humans; able to heal human sickness but this healing is costly; fraternizes with Ghosts at night; when in the mood turns into Whale; powerful ones are pure white. Remarkably similar to Bear, with sharp teeth and a high forehead. Both caused a lot of trouble (and still do) in their relationships with humans.

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