The World’s Largest Collection of Standing Totem Poles Keeps Getting Bigger
Eighty sculptures in and around Ketchikan, Alaska, tell the ancestral stories of Indigenous clans
According to Tlingit mythology, long ago a Raven wished to marry Fog Woman, the daughter of Chief Fog-Over-the-Salmon. The chief granted his permission, and Fog Woman and Raven lived happily for two seasons. But in the winter, a food shortage left the couple hungry every night. Raven struggled to bring home food, so Fog Woman wove a basket that she filled with water. After washing her hands in the basket, Raven could see salmon—the first salmon ever created—swimming inside.
Fog Woman continued to produce salmon, and for a time, the couple lived happily once again. But eventually they began to fight. Raven’s anger took hold and one day he hit Fog Woman on the shoulder with a piece of dried salmon. Fog Woman would not stand for the disrespect and left the house with Raven chasing after her. Every time Raven attempted to reach out and grab her, his hands went right through her, as if she were made of fog.
Fog Woman ran into the water, and all the salmon she’d dried followed her. Raven never saw her again—but every year, salmon come rushing back into the water in Ketchikan. She feeds the community all these years later.
Today, this legend is memorialized in the most prominent totem pole in Ketchikan, Alaska: the 55-foot-tall Chief Johnson pole. The current iteration of the pole, which is a replica built by Tongass Tlingit carver Israel Shotridge in 1989, sits outside the former home of Chief George Johnson, beside Ketchikan Creek, the ancestral fishing grounds of the Tongass Tlingit. The original pole (carved by an unknown person and now in storage at the Totem Heritage Center) was raised in 1901 and stood until 1982, when it was removed to make room for the replica. Johnson was chief of the Gaanaxadi clan in the Tongass tribe from 1902 to his death in 1938.
Chief Johnson’s is just one of the more than 80 standing totem poles, the world’s largest collection of them, scattered around Ketchikan in southeastern Alaska—and more are added every year as artists carve and erect them to honor respected community members. Indigenous peoples have been carving totem poles in the Ketchikan area for thousands of years, says Kathy Dye, deputy director of communications and publications at Sealaska Heritage, an organization dedicated to sharing Southeast Alaskan Native culture.
“Totem poles are part of a long, rich tradition in Ketchikan,” says Anita Maxwell, director of the Ketchikan Museums, which includes the Totem Heritage Center. “We’re on Lingit Aani (Tlingit land) and totem poles are an important part of Tlingit culture. [And] we are on Revillagigedo Island in the midst of the world’s largest temperate rainforest, a prime location for the large red cedar trees used to carve totem poles.”
In Ketchikan, visitors can explore the poles around town on their own, or take guided tours with companies like Ketchikan Native Tours. The sculptures are scattered around town, but mostly concentrated in the Totem Heritage Center. Replicas of important totem poles can be found at Saxman Totem Park, located two and a half miles outside of town in the Tlingit native village, and Totem Bight State Historical Park, just up the coast from Ketchikan. At Whale Park, closer to town, Chief Kyan’s totem pole, which is pictured in U.S. passports, stands. The newest pole, created by Tsimshian carver Kevin Clevenger, was just erected last month. It’s 5 feet, 9 inches tall, and tells the story of the Origin of Daylight, depicting a giant carrying the sun after stealing it from the heavens.
Indigenous peoples in the Northwest Coast began carving totem poles long before Europeans arrived. The poles were meant to decay and go back to Earth, so tracing the tradition back to its exact origin is difficult. The carvings are typically located in western Canada and the northwestern U.S. Aside from Ketchikan, large collections can be found in Juneau, Alaska, and Kitwanga, Alert Bay and Haida Gwaii, all in British Columbia in Canada.
The totem poles in Ketchikan represent the ancestral traditions of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. The Ketchikan Museum’s collection at the Totem Heritage Center alone has more than 30 poles from the 19th century, relocated from the original villages in which they were found, and still owned by the descendants of those villages.
Chief Johnson’s pole—a must-see in Ketchikan—is made from just one western red cedar log. It has a bird at the top called a Kadjuk (the crest of Johnson’s clan), followed by a 33-foot stretch of uncarved pole that’s meant to symbolize the bird’s importance. Below that are representations of Fog Woman and Raven.
Carving methods haven't changed much over the years—with the exception of the use of modern tools now instead of ancient carving tools like beaver teeth. Totem poles are often mistaken to be religious in nature, but that’s not actually the case, says Tsimshian carver David Boxley, who’s currently working on a new pole. This pole is part of a set of two. It will be 17 feet tall, depicting a thunderbird, Woman with Salmon and Killer Whale. The pair will go to a private owner in Colorado.
“Totem poles represent the history of a person, family, clan or tribe,” he says. “They tell the stories, the connections to our ancestors, and how our crests or clans originated. They never had religious meaning.”
Because of that, learning what the totem poles represent can be a bit of a challenge. Only members of the clan that built the pole have a right to tell the story behind it, says Tlingit carver Kenneth “Kelly” White. Plus, White says, five different types of totem poles are carved: honor poles (celebrating a person or an event), shame poles (showing the community someone who did something wrong or speaking out against political action), heraldic poles (identifying the families living inside the clan house), story poles (describing a family’s history), and memorial poles (honoring the dead).
“The native people didn't have a written language so everything was told through story,” White says. “To tell our family stories and histories, we would often use totem poles to help depict it.”
White has worked on totem poles long enough that he knows what each figure on the pole depicts. Figures typically represent clan crests, like a thunderbird, wolf, eagle or whale. Carvers will also include human forms to represent a person in the community or supernatural beings that tell stories of the past.
“However, I wouldn't know the story behind the totem pole,” he says. “If someone from that clan told me the story, then you were to come and tap me on the shoulder to ask what the story is, I would not be able to tell you that story. This is because that clan story is not part of my clan history. If it’s not part of my clan history, then I have no right to tell that story.”