Photo: Totem poles in Burke Museum. Pole on right is a model of Chief Skulka pole from Howkan Alaska
In October, Steve and I were at the University of Washington's new Burke Museum where I saw the small totem pole in the photo above. From its bold uncluttered lines, I recognized it as a Haida pole. Its design looked familiar, yet I was sure I'd never seen it before. The sign next to it said that the pole was carved in about 1900 and was a model of a full-sized pole called the Chief Skulka Pole, made in the 1800s for Chief Skulka of Howkan, Alaska. Click here to see the
copyrighted photo from Alaska State Library digital archives.
As I studied the model pole and the photo of the original, I realized why it was familiar I had seen two other full-sized copies of the same pole in the Hydaburg Totem Park on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska: one that had been carved during the Great Depression and a second, carved to replace the first in 2012.
Photo: Two replicas of Skulka Pole at Hydaburg Totem Park
Left: Depression era pole 2011 photo
Right: Replacement pole 2013 photo
Like SE Alaska's other five totem parks, Hydaburg's park was established during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the US Forest Service. The purpose of the parks was to provide work for unemployed Natives and to establish tourist attractions in depressed areas of Alaska. Native workers went to deserted villages and brought back old poles that they either repaired or replicated. Howkan was one of three former Haida village sites whose poles had been used in the Hydaburg Totem Park. Steve and I had visited the Howkan site just last summer (click here to see blog on Howkan
) There we had wandered in awe through majestic spruce trees and viewed the village's last remaining totem pole, covered by moss and young trees.
The two poles in the Hydaburg Park had intrigued me. On their tops sat two small carved Haida watchmen, figures placed on Haida poles to warn residents of danger. On the pole carved during the Great Depression, the watchmen were painted pink as if nude, and rather than wearing traditional conical Haida hats, they wore Lincoln-style top hats. Below the watchmen an American-style (realistic) eagle sat on the head of a white man dressed in a naval uniform. I remembered that nudity was sometimes used in ridicule poles, erected to shame someone for an unresolved offense and I wondered if the pole was a ridicule pole.
Now that I knew that the original pole had belonged to Chief Skulka of Howkan, I was able to find an article, Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest Coast, by Robin K. Wright of the University of Washington https://content.lib.washington.edu/aipnw/wright.html
that lists several different explanations for the pole, suggested by different researchers: (1) that the white man on the pole was an American sea captain who had stolen two children of Skulka's clan while their mother was collecting salmon eggs; (2) that the white man was the Russian uncle of Skulka's wife, and the first white man seen by the family, an event worthy of memorializing on a pole, and; (3) that the white man was a Russian and was put on the pole because Russians took the land away from the Indians and did not pay them. The eagle stood on the Russian's head to hold him down until the land is paid for.
Wright notes that whether the white man represents an American or a Russian, he probably was put on this pole as a "ridicule" figure proclaiming that a debt had not been paid, either for the stolen children or the stolen land.
My hunch had been right; the pole was a ridicule pole. Figuring that out gave me new appreciation for Seattle's Burke Museum and reminded me of the ongoing connection between Seattle and Alaska.
Both the border between Washington State and Canada and Canada and Alaska are closed. To take a virtual trip and to learn more about SE Alaska's totem parks including Hydaburg's, read Glaciers, Bears and Totems: Sailing in Search of the Real Southeast Alaska
or buy through your local bookstore.