“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Ketchikan in Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Alaska — Northwest (North America)

Carving a Place in History

Carving a Place in History Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Duane and Tracy Marsteller, September 4, 2021
1. Carving a Place in History Marker
Inscription.  The cultural traditions and stylistic glories of Northwest Coast Native artists go back centuries. But the historical period of (obscured) and curating — mainly by non-Natives — is relatively short. Totem poles by tradition were private property: owned by the families who commissioned them as memorials and marks of status. Contrary to what some Westerners believed, totems were not revered as religious icons. For all their majesty and price, they were meant to succumb to time. Tradition took a turn starting in 1929. Federal officials brought in totems from abandoned villages. Decaying cedar was repaired. Totem poles beyond saving were replicated by squads of carvers; master artists taught their skills to a generation that otherwise might have lost them. Poles arose in grand formation at Saxman and Totem Bight, linking Native and white peoples. Caption: Northwest Coast art was a cultural threatened species in the latter 1800s and early 1900s. Relocation, disease and suppression quieted the form. But then a renaissance brought new vitality. This carver in 1939 had a hand in it. Tongass Historical Museum

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artistry in a land of plenty

In traditional Northwest Coast culture, the artist enjoyed lofty status. Families of wealth and high rank commissioned grand, intricate totem poles, house posts, screens or dugout canoes that might keep an artist at work for a year. If the job was outside his own village, the artist lived in the house of his employer and was fed from the bounty provided by the Alaska rainforest. He was traditionally paid in clothing and food — at least in the days before Western people introduced trade goods and cash.

The carver learned his craft in a sort of apprenticeship — often from his father. Many young artists were trained by master carvers who put them on the opposite sides of 50-foot cedar behemoths and instructed them to mirror the masters' adz work.

Carving tools of long ago had handles of bone, antler or wood. Carvers fitted stones or seashells into them for roughing out the carvings. The resourceful artists used beaver-tooth knives and shark skin for fine work.

Early explorers found metal tools in the hands of Northwest Coast artists before Westerners brought iron to coastal people. Speculation is that Natives reclaimed metal from drift wreckage, or that metal parts moved down a chain of intertribal trade.

Second lives for cultural reflectors
Replication projects aided revival of art
Carving a Place in History Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Duane and Tracy Marsteller, September 4, 2021
2. Carving a Place in History Marker
New Deal was a new lease on life for totem-pole artistry. Federal money brought in poles from abandoned villages and the Civilian Conservation Corps funded carvers and apprentices who re-created the poles to the last detail. Through the rest of the 20th century, Native artists were honored by their people. And some had lucrative careers. Captions (Left) [illegible]; (right) The carvers a year later, in 1940, with the finial for the new Lincoln pole. Tongass Historical Museum

Conservation and craftmanship mark the era
The Ketchikan Chronicle, March 1939 — The second wave of totem uprootings occurred a decade after the initial campaign to bring poles from their village settings. The effort points to increasing interest in Native culture. Caption: This replication totem pole left Saxman in the late 1930s and was raised in Seattle's Pioneer Square. Tongass Historical Museum
• • •
Students of world cultures find a rich aesthetic value in the work of Northwest Coast carvers. Leading anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote:
“These objects — beings transformed into things, human animals, living boxes — seem as remote as possible from our own conception of art since the time of the Greeks. Yet even here one would err to suppose that a single possibility
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of the aesthetic life had escaped the prophets and virtuosos of the Northwest Coast. Several of those masks and statues are thoughtful portraits which prove a concern to attain not only physical resemblance but the most subtle spiritual essence of the soul. The sculptor of Alaska and British Columbia is not only the sorcerer who confers upon the supernatural a visible form, but also the inspired creator, the interpreter who translates into eternal chefs d'oeuvre the fugitive emotions of man.”
(As quoted by Bill Holm and Bill Reid in Indian Art of the Northwest Coast) Caption: A carving squad led by Charles Brown works on the 55-foot Lincoln pole replication. Tongass Historical Museum

Commercial carving is old hat for artists in Southeast Alaska
The buying and selling of totemic art between Western and Native peoples isn't new: it goes back centuries. Many priceless Northwest Coast artifacts in museums from London and Boston to Seattle derive from deals clinched as early as the 1780s. Explorers, sailors and traders bought so much Native art that villagers produced pieces expressly for sale. When over-harvesting ruined the sea otter trade. 19th-century carvers and weavers had a market niche to fill. By the 1920s, Alaska Natives were turning out innumerable pieces for the curio trade, from lamp stands to finely crafted small totems. Caption: George Mather of the Tsimshian tribe with his wares. Tongass Historical Society

Sponsored by Historic Ketchikan, Inc. Research assistance was provided by Ketchikan Museums — a department of the city of Ketchikan
Erected by Historic Ketchikan, Inc.
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Arts, Letters, MusicCommunicationsNative Americans.
Location. 55° 20.505′ N, 131° 38.612′ W. Marker is in Ketchikan, Alaska, in Ketchikan Gateway Borough. Marker can be reached from Mill Street, on the left when traveling east. Marker is in Whale Park. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 829 Mill Street, Ketchikan AK 99901, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Sea and Skyline (here, next to this marker); Crossing a Frontier (here, next to this marker); Chief Kyan Totem Pole (a few steps from this marker); Chief Johnson Totem Pole (within shouting distance of this marker); 'Cat' Houses & Sporting Women (within shouting distance of this marker); In Defiance of the Dry Squad (within shouting distance of this marker); Star House (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line); Ketchikan Shingle Mill (about 400 feet away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Ketchikan.
Credits. This page was last revised on September 17, 2021. It was originally submitted on September 17, 2021, by Duane and Tracy Marsteller of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This page has been viewed 193 times since then and 38 times this year. Photos:   1, 2. submitted on September 17, 2021, by Duane and Tracy Marsteller of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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Jun. 15, 2024