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Photo Essay: Native art at Totem Bight Park, Ketchikan, Alaska Special

Posted May 25, 2015 by Igor I. Solar
Ketchikan has the world's largest collection of totem poles. These imposing sculptures can be seen throughout the city and at several locations nearby. Totem Bight State Park contains 15 large totem poles and a replica of a traditional clan house.
Detail of the top of one of the two huge totem poles holding the main beams of the Clan House.
Detail of the top of one of the two huge totem poles holding the main beams of the Clan House.
The city of Ketchikan with a population of about 8,200 people is located on Revillagigedo Island in the southeastern region of Alaska. It is said that at least 20 percent of Ketchikan residents can trace their heritage to Alaska’s native tribes, particularly Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.
Among the most interesting sights in Ketchikan are the impressive collection of over 80 totem poles scattered throughout the city and in several places near downtown including Saxman Native Village, The Totem Heritage Center, and The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.
Totem Bight State Park is about 16 Km north of downtown Ketchikan. The park occupies about 33 acres facing the sea with a wonderful view of the Tongass Narrows. Totem Bight Park has a collection of 15 totem poles and a replica of a community house or clan house large enough to accommodate 30 to 50 people. Most of the carvings are reconstruction of ancient totem poles that the native coastal communities left behind at the time they started to move to non-Native settlements in Southeast Alaska in the late 19th Century to work on activities associated with the Alaska and Yukon gold rushes.
The Clan House is made of Western Red Cedar. The entrance to the Clan House (the oval hole in the ce...
The Clan House is made of Western Red Cedar. The entrance to the Clan House (the oval hole in the central pole on the front) was purposely made small. It forces a person to go inside head first.
Large totem poles hold the main beams inside the Clan house. The large structure has a single square...
Large totem poles hold the main beams inside the Clan house. The large structure has a single square chamber with a central fire pit.
Detail of the top of one of the two huge totem poles holding the main beams of the Clan House.
Detail of the top of one of the two huge totem poles holding the main beams of the Clan House.
The villages were abandoned and most of the totem poles were overgrown by the forests or damaged by weather. In 1938 the US Forest Service developed a program to find and restore the large wooden sculptures representing the cultural heritage of the Northwest Coast tribes. Experienced Native carvers and newly trained young artisans repaired dozens of outstanding totem poles, and in many cases duplicated those that had been lost in the woods or damaged beyond repair.
Kadjuk Bird Pole. Salmon in totem poles was a symbol of life and good luck. The fish were often show...
Kadjuk Bird Pole. Salmon in totem poles was a symbol of life and good luck. The fish were often shown in pairs as a demonstration of reproductive success.
Raven at the Head of Nass. This totem pole is a replica from a Tlingit pole on Tongass lsland. The p...
Raven at the Head of Nass. This totem pole is a replica from a Tlingit pole on Tongass lsland. The picture shows just the lower part of the much taller pole which holds a chief at the top. The main figure in this section is a Raven. The small human figure represents ancestors of the Raven clan. The uncarved space between the top figure and the figures below represents high regard held for the chief.
Tall totem poles include numerous figures and symbols representing animals  cultural beliefs  clan l...
Tall totem poles include numerous figures and symbols representing animals, cultural beliefs, clan lineages, family legends, or historical events. This pole resembles one left at the the deserted Haida village of Klinkwan. A village watchman stands guard at the top
Totem poles were made from the highly rot-resistant trunks of western red cedar. The art of carving was adopted by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America (Washington State, British Columbia and Alaska) around the mid-1800s. The poles include numerous figures and symbols representing animals, cultural beliefs, clan lineages, family legends, or historical events. The large wood carvings were not religious symbols, but mostly artistic expressions depicting the owners’ wealth or prestige. They were usually placed in front or inside the dwelling of important members of the community. Is some cases were also used as grave markers or even as mortuary structures with a hollow space near the top to place a grave box containing the ashes of the deceased.
Eagle Grave Marker. Replica of the original from the old Haida village of Howkan  Long Island.  The ...
Eagle Grave Marker. Replica of the original from the old Haida village of Howkan, Long Island. The designs on the chest are interpreted as mountains, clouds, and creatures living there.
Thunderbird and Whale Mortuary Totem Pole. The mythical bird lives high on the mountain top. The bir...
Thunderbird and Whale Mortuary Totem Pole. The mythical bird lives high on the mountain top. The bird creates wind by the beating of its wings, and lightening by the blink of its eyes. The black whale at the base of the pole symbolizes the mountain top where the bird rests before devouring his prey.
Land Otter Pole. This Haida pole tells the story of a hero which stands on top of the pole wearing a...
Land Otter Pole. This Haida pole tells the story of a hero which stands on top of the pole wearing a dog-skin headdress. The hero holds in one hand the tail of an otter, and in the other hand a carved club with magical powers which allows him to outwit his enemies.
Most of the figures carved in totem poles are stylized representations of animals. The belief was that the traits and characteristics of the animals could be transmitted to the people owning the carvings. The most important animal to the Haida and Tlingit peoples was the raven symbolizing prestige and knowledge. Other important symbols were the mythical thunderbird, considered a supernatural creature of power and strength; the eagle, a symbol of peace and friendship; the killer whale, symbolizing long life and togetherness; and the salmon, considered the giver of life and good luck.
The various animals on the totem poles were painted with a limited range of colors using mostly natural pigments made from salmon eggs, hematite, and other minerals. Black was the primary color. Red was often used to tint secondary sections, while green was applied for tertiary underlining.
Totem Bight Park  occupies about 33 acres of forested land facing the sea with a wonderful view of t...
Totem Bight Park occupies about 33 acres of forested land facing the sea with a wonderful view of the Tongass Narrows. In the background are the shores of Gravina Island.
Totem Bight State Park is located in the middle of a lush rainforest overlooking the ocean which many years ago was the site of a traditional Tlingit fish camp known as Mud Bight Village. Although most of the large totem poles displayed in the grounds, and the beautiful Clan House are restored carvings or replicas of traditional structures, they are considered important because they reflect ancient West Coast First Nations art. Additionally, the totem poles in combination with the community house and the natural setting, convey an atmosphere representative of Southeast Alaska First Nations society, technology and art. The ancient Mud Bight Village, now Totem Bight State Park, was inscribed in the US National Register of Historic Places in 1970.