Rural Tennessee has electricity for the same reason Southeast Alaska has totem parks — the New Deal.
In order to help the nation recover from The Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, created a number of federal agencies to put people to work. From 1938-1942 more than 200 Tlingit and Haida men carved totem poles and cleared land for the Civilian Conservation Corps in an effort to create “totem parks” the federal government hoped would draw travelers to Alaska.
This odd intersection of federal relief, Alaska Native art and marketing is the subject of Emily L. Moore’s book “Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal Totem Parks,” which will be the focus of a June 22 lecture at the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum.
“I grew up in Ketchikan, and I had Native friends who would give tours in the summer,” Moore said in an interview with the Capital City Weekly. “In the wintertime, those parks were very important for schoolkids like myself. I started reading what had been written about the parks, and it was just so dismissive. I knew they had a lot more significance than that. These are so much more complex and rich than anybody has written about.”
Moore is an assistant professor of art history for Colorado State University, and her book, which was released last November, began its life as her doctoral thesis.
Criticism of the poles and parks has some merit, Moore said. Colonialism led to carvers who were not as skilled as their earlier counterparts, and the government was appropriating a culture to create parks divorced from tradition.
However, Moore said the poles are still important and the federal government was surprisingly invested in restoring works of art.
“It’s interesting because the Forest Service took over the Tongass National Forest in the early 20th century, and there’s clear documentation of them wanting to restore totem poles,” Moore said. “There had been kind of calls even earlier, and ironically there’s not money until the Depression when there were relief programs and the New Deal.”
Replications and restorations
Restoration efforts took the form of contracts with families to cut down more than 100 totem poles, so they could be restored or replicated in carving sheds around Southeast, including in Saxman, Klawock, Hydaburg and Kasaan.
The program also led to the creation of a handful of new poles, including ones in Juneau. CCC totem poles in the capital city include the poles at Governor’s Mansion, Juneau-Douglas City Museum and at Auke Village Recreation Area.
“Those were new designs,” Moore said. “They’re based on old stories. They were commissioned by the government and Native carvers got to choose the stories they’d like to depict for those settings.”
Many of the old poles that were cut down were too rotted to be restored, so they were replicated, Moore said. Once poles were completed, they were heavily painted and essentially Shellacked to make them more weather proof. Traditionally, totem poles are not heavily painted.
”As much as they were trying to respect that art form and the importance of that art form there was a lot of really strange, paternalistic things happening,” Moore said. “It was more of a respect for the poles than contemporary Native people.”
However, Moore said while the Alaska Native people employed by the CCC worked hard, they were not paid less than their white counterparts in the Lower 48.
The men carving poles and clearing the way for totem parks were paid $2 per day, Moore said. That’s about $36.33 in 2019 dollars, or $180 per week, according to U.S. Inflation Calculator.
A lasting legacy
The program was ongoing when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but it ended in 1942 when Congress discontinued funding for the CCC to reroute resources to World War II.
“The sad thing is immediately after the CCC program, there’s a huge war,” Moore said. “Very few CCC carvers continued carving.”
Still, the CCC totem poles had long-term impacts.
For one, the stories documented by the poles were sometimes used to add legitimacy to Alaska Natives’ land claims.
“It’s a super complicated dynamic where Tlingit and Haida men are being enrolled in the CCC, and they’re enrolled in the Forest Service and at night they’re going to ANB (Alaska Native Brotherhood) meetings and they’re involved in a lawsuit against the federal government,” Moore said. “It’s funny because they were restored under government auspices and then used to contest government claims on land and waterways.”
Also, while many CCC carvers did not continue the craft after World War II, their children, nephews and grandchildren did pick up the tools.
“Like Nathan Jackson, whose uncle was a CCC carver,” Moore said. “That generation had the opportunity to carve. That’s when there’s what’s referred to the Northwest Coast Art Renaissance. No one ever really gives the CCC carvers any credit for that, but I really see them as an important bridge. They raised children who had access to the totem poles, who had access to their crest stories.”
Juneau’s CCC totem poles
Three totem poles in Juneau are a result of the Civilian Conservation Corps program.
All are publicly visible. Two of them are located downtown while the third is visible at the Auke Village Recreation Area.
“Four Story Totem” is located outside Juneau-Douglas City Museum and was carved by Haida carver John Wallace of Hydaburg in 1940, according to the city museum. The pole depicts four Haida clan stories “The Monster Frog,” “The Man With the Fish Trap,” “Chaawank And the Land Otter Man,” and “The Shaman at Island Point Town.”
“The Governor’s Totem” is located outside the Governor’s mansion and was carved by Charlie Tagcook of Klukwan and William Brown of Saxman, according to the city museum.
It depicts seven figures from Tlingit stories, including Grandfather, Raven, Man, Giant Cannibal, Mosquito, The World and Old Woman Underneath. It tells the stories of Raven stealing the sun, moon and stars, Raven’s cration of man, how Guteel the cannibal became mosquitoes, as well as the story of Raven and the tides.
“Yax-te (Big Dipper) Totem” is located at Auke Village Recreation Area. It was carved in 1941 by Frank St. Clair of Hoonah and two local carvers employed by the CCC, according to the City and Borough of Juneau. It was later restored by master carver Wayne Price. It tells the story of an ancient battle the Aak’w Kwaan fought to protect their village, according to the USDA Forest Service.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.