Totem Poles

Don’t feel bad if someone tells you you’re “low man on the totem pole.” Often, the most important figure can be found at the base, not on the top, as many believe. (Taken from the Port Guide of the Island Princess)

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Ketchikan is home to the largest collection of totem poles in the world.

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They stand sprinkled throughout the city, at Totem Bight State Park and at Saxman Native Village.

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While we visited the Saxman Native Village we were invited to visit the carving shed, a large woodworking shop where totem poles and masks are carved by a master carver and his apprentices. Our interpreter joined us to give an explanation and answer questions.

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The scent of the freshly carved wood permeates the carving shed with its fresh, clean smell. While we were visiting we had a chance to see a totem pole that was recently commissioned by a family in California. The carvings on the pole represented a baker and a wine maker. A figure is carved for each branch of the family. It is still a work in progress . The carving is still done by hand in the old tradition.

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Nathan, the master carver, was in residence but could not be enticed to tell us the price tag on such a pole. His only comment was that “It was enough.” Nathan would not tell us how long it takes to carve a pole either. He is truly a man of few words.

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A totem pole can identify a clan and placed by the front door of their lodge can tell the history of the clan.

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Totem poles are erected for many reasons even to commemorate shameful events.
A potlatch was held in honor of Secretary of State Seward but when he did not reciprocate his ears and nose on his totem were painted red. A sign of disrespect. At one time his descendants asked how much it would cost to hold the potlatch now. When they were told the cost they decided to leave  the totem painted as is.

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