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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Native Lives and Traditions
The Stolen Totem Pole
By Tricia Brown

In August 1899, a group of prominent Seattle businessmen calling themselves the "Good Will Committee" explored the Alaska Panhandle in an expedition sponsored by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Steaming along the coast and among the islands on the City of Seattle, the party had arrived on the heels of the Harriman Expedition, in which a select crew of scientists and artists also followed the coast of British Columbia and Alaska that summer. While national newspapers reported their progress, the Harriman group surveyed the shoreline, catalogued flora and fauna, collected specimens, and expanded the world's knowledge of the coastal geology, marine life, glaciers, and Native culture. The "specimen collecting" occasionally turned to theft, however, at various villages they encountered. At Gaash, a Cape Fox village, expedition members disembarked and returned with, among other finds, a pair of finely carved bear house posts, taken without the permission of the clan. Likewise, during other stops, members left with totem poles, masks, bentwood boxes, and other Native Alaskan articles they intended for colleges and museums around the country.

Just one month later, vacationing businessmen from Alaska on the "P-I Excursion," as the tour was called, asked their captain where they might procure a totem pole for the city of Seattle. Knowing that many villagers would be away fishing, the captain chose Tongass Village, which was virtually empty when they arrived. There were witnesses, however, who did not or could not object as one of village's monumental totems, a 60-foot pole, was chopped down like a tree, cut in half, and rolled to the shoreline. The elaborately carved pole had belonged to the Raven Clan and was topped by the figure of Raven.

A few months later, the Raven totem pole was installed at First Avenue and Yesler Way in Seattle's Pioneer Square. At its official unveiling, a crowd of cheering people was on hand. The date was October 18, 1899, the anniversary of Alaska's transfer from Russia to the United States, now observed as Alaska Day.

The people of Tongass Village did not remain silent, however. The Tlingit people brought their grievances to Territorial Governor John G. Brady, asking for the return of the pole or $20,000 for its purchase. Ultimately, a federal grand jury in Alaska indicted eight of the prominent Seattleites for theft of "government property," as the village was under the jurisdiction of the military at Fort Tongass.

Seattle attorney William H. Thompson denied that the totem had been stolen. "The village has long since been deserted," he responded. "Here the totem will voice the natives' deeds with surer speech than if lying prone on moss and fern on the shore of Tongass Island."

Writing his memoirs in 1935, James William Clise, who had been a leader in the P-I Excursion's "Good Will Committee," remembered the events that followed: "By some skillful work and co-operation of certain designing white men then living in Seattle, eight or ten of the principal men aboard the vessel were indicted by the Courts of Alaska for removing the totem pole to Seattle. No attempt was ever made to serve the papers or to take the men interested to Alaska. On the contrary, on one occasion every Senator and Representative from the Pacific Coast states went in a body to the State Department in Washington and asked the dismissal of the suit. They explained it was beyond their power to do so . . . "

Lacking assistance from Washington, the men sought help through political friendships and alliances. Clise, who had been acting chairman of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce in 1899, wrote that he and others among Seattle's prominent leaders wined and dined a newly appointed U.S. District Court Judge for Alaska when he passed through Seattle. Clise wrote: " . . . the entertainment was such a remarkable success that upon his taking his Judicial position in Alaska, one of his first acts was to dismiss the suit."

The Raven pole was not returned to Tongass Village, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer offered a mere $500 in compensation, a sum that never reached the village, or more specifically, the Raven Clan.

In 1905, anthropologist John R. Swanton discussed the totem in an article for The Journal of American Folklore, writing, "Every visitor to Seattle, Washington, has been attracted and more or less interested by the great totem pole that adorns its main square, but until recently no authentic explanation of the carvings upon it had been obtained." He went on to give an abbreviated version of legends represented on the pole and offered his source for the stories: a Tlingit family named Hunt. "It seems that the pole belonged to the Ganaxa'di (People of Ganax)," he wrote, "one of the principal Tlingit families belonging to the Raven Clan."

A more complete history of the Seattle pole and its original ownership was published in the late 1990s by the University of Washington's Burke Museum to accompany an exhibit on American Indians of the Pacific Northwest. Robin K. Wright, curator of Native American Art, wrote an essay titled "Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest Coast," which appears on the university's Digital Collections website. Wright explained the Seattle pole's provenance:

"Poles were often 'copied,' that is, new versions were commissioned when new houses were built, or when members of the family married and moved to other villages. An earlier copy of this Tongass pole had been raised by David Hunt in front of his house at Fort Rupert, British Columbia, in honor of his grandmother. He was the grandson of Anisalaga, Mary Ebbetts Hunt, of the Ga.nax.'di Raven clan, a Tlingit noble woman who was one of the original owners of the pole in Tongass. She married Robert Hunt, a Hudson's Bay Company trader at Fort Simpson, and later moved with him to Fort Rupert. The original pole was raised around 1870 in Tongass as a memorial to Anisalaga's mother. The pole commissioned by David Hunt was carved by Charlie James in the Kwakwaka'wakw style, but with the same figures that were on the Tongass Tlingit pole."

The stolen totem pole that had been carved to honor a great woman stood in Pioneer Square until an arsonist irreparably burned it on October 22, 1938. New generations of Seattleites grieved the loss of their beloved totem pole, its history unknown to most of them. The remains of the original pole were at last returned to Alaska. In Ketchikan, the Forest Service hired skilled Tlingit craftsmen to carve a replacement pole as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps project. Tlingit carver Charles Brown, of the Nexadi clan, would direct the work at Saxman. Brown also served as lead carver for the CCC's Mud Bight Village project (known today as Totem Bight State Park), and supervised carvers on poles for the CCC work at Saxman's totem park. Others on the Raven pole carving crew were William H. Brown, James Starrish, Robert Harris, William Andrews, and James Andrews. The replica pole left Saxman for Seattle on April 14, 1940, strapped onto the deck of the SS Tanana. It was officially dedicated on July 25 amid a great celebration. It towers over Pioneer Square still, a treasured Seattle landmark in a National Historic District, far from home, yet an enduring testament to a noble woman of the Ga.nax.'di Raven clan.


From their website:
Materials digitized for the "American Indians of the Pacific Northwest" collection are drawn from the diverse holdings of the project partners. Copyright of the site is held by the University of Washington.

Images from the "American Indians of the Pacific Northwest" collection may be downloaded for noncommercial educational and research purposes.

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Gallery of Images
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Images of houses and totem poles at Tongass Village
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A new figure of the Lincoln Pole created for Saxman
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Posing with an antique figure of Abraham Lincoln in Old Tongass
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The finished pole leaves Saxman on April 14th, 1940
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After 40 years in Seattle's Pioneer Square, the pole was burned
Click here for all 8 photos in this gallery.

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