Letter: Totem pole return warrants celebration, not recrimination

The Oct. 23 Associated Press article about the return of the Tuxecan totem pole (Alaska tribal members to get back totem pole taken by actor) deserves further comment.

While the removal of the pole was regrettable and entirely unjustified, the characterization of its taking as a criminal act is disputable and highly speculative. Building on the original research of Wayne Howell, a former Glacier Bay National Park resource specialist who tracked the ownership of the pole and eventually located it in Hawaii, University of Alaska Anchorage professor Dr. Steven Langdon followed up on the location of the pole, confirmed its identity and facilitated its return. The efforts of Dr. Langdon deserve much credit, but in pursuing this the disparagement of the reputation of the actor John Barrymore is unfortunate.

While the real story will likely never be known, Howell’s earlier research revealed at least two credible sources that said that the pole had been purchased by Barrymore, not stolen. One of these was a written note by anthropologist Viola Garfield, who was conducting research at the University of Washington and corresponded with a subsequent owner of the pole who had information about its origin.

The other was in a book about the Barrymores by Carol Hoffman, written in collaboration with John Barrymore’s son, showing a photo of crew members in broad daylight removing the pole from the site, with the caption that Barrymore had “bought a tribal totem pole.” Whether he bought it or not, it is well documented that the pole was removed from a village site that had been deserted for decades.

Unfortunately, in those early (and very different) times, the taking of Native artifacts and objects from many sites in Alaska and, in fact, all over the United States was common practice. One of the most blatant cases was the taking of numerous poles and artifacts from the deserted village of Cape Fox, Alaska, by members of the Harriman Expedition of 1899. I doubt the many prominent authors and scientists of that group were considered to be common thieves at the time. Similarly, attributing criminal intent to John Barrymore, if he thought the site abandoned, is likewise unfounded.

The removal of totem poles and other priceless artifacts from their original sites, whether purchased or not, can never be justified. Under federal repatriation law, the Harriman Cape Fox poles were returned in 2001 and the Tuxecan pole will be returned next month — important steps down the long road of cultural preservation and worthy of celebration, not further recrimination.

Joel Bennett