Tlingit

The Totems of Ketchikan

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

The totem artworks of the first peoples of Southeast Alaska, coastal British Columbia, and western Washington are among the most powerful art forms in the world.

These beautiful creations can be found in the historic communities of the first peoples of these regions, including modern-day Ketchikan, Alaska. The Tlingit and Haida Tribes call this area home, and their cultural, economic, social, and totem art traditions are alive and well, amazing visitors from around the world.

I visited Ketchikan several times during my six-year stay in Alaska from 2004 through 2010, when I worked for the Consulate of Canada, Anchorage.

I had forgotten I had these images until I accidentally found them in an old digital archive. I wanted to bring them out of the shadows and into the light.

These images date from 2007, so the totems since that time have been weathered by the relentless rain and moisture of that beautiful, soggy corner of North America.

If you visit, Ketchikan, by ferry or on the Alaska Marine Highway, you can find the totems at the Clans Totem Circle, at the Totem Heritage Center for historic poles safeguarded in climate-controlled protection, and at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.

To understand the meaning of this intricate artwork, the myths, and the natural world that inspired these magnificent creations, you should first understand the stories of those who created them. Try exploring the stories about Alaska’s Tlingit and Haida peoples.

The official site of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska provides a great resource on the priorities and heritage of the first people’s of Southeast Alaska. I hope you get a chance to visit Ketchikan and the other communities where these cultural traditions continue to thrive.

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The Raven and Eagle clans

 

Two traditionally carved canoes on display in Sitka, Alaska, show two major clans of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, the Tlingit and Haida bands. According to the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, tribal members people are born into either the raven or eagle clan line, established matrilineally through their mother’s family. The council’s web site notes that in Tlingit, Yeil is Raven and Ch’aak is Eagle (Wolf is sometimes used interchangeably with Eagle).

If you have ever been to Southeast Alaska, one can see why these two powerful animals are chosen. The raven is the crafty trickster, the one who helped bring man into the world according to legend. The sneaky and beautiful raven makes haunting, complex noises that echo mysteriously in the damp forests of the region and can create a feast with any food that comes its way (my favorite Alaskan animal). Greenlanders on the far side of the Arctic I met also spoke highly of the raven for being a food thief from other predators. The eagle is the great and proud hunter, with the most watchful gaze one can imagine. Seeing it catch a salmon is an unforgettable sight. But they can also be dumpster divers, going after fish scraps from fish processing plants in Alaska, sometimes with sad consequences.

Personally, I think the raven run circles around the eagle, as bird intellects go.

These photos were taken in 1999. Click on each photo to see a larger picture in a separate picture page

The raven and the bear, Tlingit totem

At Sitka National Historic Park, site of a historic battle between invading Russian fur traders and their Native allies against the Native residents of the Tlingit band, amazingly beautiful totems are on display, old and new. Artists keep the tradition alive and carve on-site. This is one of my favorite places in the entire world, and I hold the bear and raven with deep regard, like the Tlingit residents who lived here for thousands of years before. (See more pictures from the Great Land on my Alaska gallery.)