Story Time with Aunt Phil: Totem Poles
When John G. Brady, governor of the District of Alaska, was asked to create an exhibit to publicize the Great Land for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, he decided to showcase one of Southeast Alaska’s most recognizable features: totem poles.
Brady thought a display of poles carved by Alaska’s Native people would draw crowds to the exhibit where they then could learn about the real Alaska – not an icebox, but a land that offered much for tourism, settlement and development.
The governor sailed to Tlingit and Haida villages between 1903-1904 and asked leaders along the way to donate poles and other cultural objects for the exposition. Several decided to trust Brady and villages like Old Kasaan, Tongass and Klawock and more chose to share their heritage with the world.
Fifteen totem poles, two dismantled Haida houses and a canoe were delivered to the St. Louis fairgrounds. A crew of Native carvers accompanied the poles in case some of the pieces needed repair.
When the Louisiana Purchase Exposition opened that April, Alaska Native totem poles helped tell close to 19 million visitors about Alaska’s past, heritage and resources. They were in sharp contrast to exhibits filled with technological marvels like electric lighting, the wireless telegraph and newfangled automobiles showing visitors the future.
When the exposition closed that winter, the Alaska exhibit traveled to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. There the poles and canoe stood along the shores of a manmade lake on the fairgrounds from June until October 1905.
The poles then began their long journey home. They arrived in Sitka in January 1906 and were repaired by skilled local carvers before going to their final home – the first totem pole park in Alaska.
Photographer E.W. Merrill designed the alignment of the poles and prisoners from the local jail contributed the labor to get the poles in place. By March, Brady’s vision for a totem park in Sitka came to fruition.
Over the years, the totems were patched and painted. And even though they finally had to be re-carved, their stories live on and provide a lasting memorial to their Alaska Native heritage.