The Totem Thieves

In 1899, railroad tycoon Edward Harriman put together an expedition of naturalists, scientists, painters and fellow robberbarons to explore the coast of southeast Alaska. The shrewd Harriman, head of the Union Pacific, even rented the services of John Muir, the father of environmentalism and founder of the Sierra Club, thus striking a bond between corporate villains and mainstream greens that thrives to this day.

The object of the two-month foray, which was heralded as the largest survey of its time, was to size-up Alaska’s riches (timber, gold, furs, oil) under the guise of scientific exploration. Karl Grove Albert, the famed geologist, picked at rocks. Bernard Fernow, the dean of the American forestry, cruised timber, calculating the number of board feet per acre. Edward Curtis lined up Haida and Tlingits for romantic mugshots and the painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes, taking Audubon’s tradition to a new level of barbarity, shot thousands of animals in order to render them in his sketchbook.

Muir mused with the poet John Burroughs (pal of Walt Whitman) and imparted his transcendental thoughts about glaciers and grizzlies, while he dined with some of the high priests of Mammon-men he had previously excoriated as the defilers of the God’s Temple.

Along the way Harriman and his gang engaged in a good bit of plunder of native villages from Ketchikan to Wrangell. When they arrived at the Tlingit village of Gaash on Cape Fox, they encountered one of the most dazzling sites in North America: dozens of intricately-carved totem poles and the great grizzly bear house, exquisitely carved and painted.

The great Grizzly House of Gaash ranks as one of the most accomplished artworks produced in America during the 19th Century, and rivals most 20th century art as well. It was certainly far beyond the talents of any of the artists mustered up by Harriman, although the paintings and (especially) the maps of Edward Dellenbach, who had also traveled down the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell, are works of great beauty.

At the time Harriman arrived, most of the Tlingit villagers were away on a fishing expedition. Later the tycoon would claim that he thought the village was abandoned. This is almost certainly a lie. Harriman, known as the “Broker’s Boy” by the trust-busters, is one of the most extravagent liars in American history and an apex capitalist, who not only created one of the great monopolies but also developed many of the tricks modern finance and accounting. Ken Lay is a piker next to the mighty Edward Harriman.

The totem poles at Gaash village were relatively new, many only a few years old. The lodges were tidy and clean. There were probably even elders still in the villages. This was not Mesa Verde or Keet Seel, but a living community, whose history was carved on cedar: if anyone had taken the time to read it. The giant welcoming men, arms raised to the sky, the towering clan poles, where wolves chased frogs and ravens laughed at beavers and orca, and the austere grave poles that held the cremated remains of dead chiefs.

In any event, the team wasted little time documenting the site. Instead, Harriman ordered the totem poles cut down and removed the carved house posts and painted panels. The loot was packed up and shipped back to Seattle.

Harriman saw himself as a top tier philanthropist. He kept much of the plunder for his own enjoyment, of course, but donated a housepost from Gaash to the Burke Museum of Anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The house post depicts a grizzly bear cradling a human figure in its mouth. This represents the story of Kaats, who married a grizzly. “Come here you bear, the highest bear of all bears,” says the Tlingit story that goes with the posts.

The mate of this post went to the museum at the University of Michigan, but it was later acquired by the Burke Museum, where they were displayed together until last year when, after a 70-year long struggle, the Tlingit finally prevailed on the museum to return them.

Now the Burke is offering an exhibit on totem poles called Out of the Silence: the Enduring Power of Totem Poles. The exhibit includes numerous sculptures, panels and carvings, as well as a series of haunting photos by Adelaide de Meuil, who shot nearly 20,000 images of decaying totem pole sites in the 1960s. Naturally, this hardly makes up for the crime of housing stolen property for a century, but it’s a compelling overview none-the-less that serves as an introduction to the powerful art of the Northwest tribes and tries to grapple with the unflattering, if not criminal, role played by collectors and anthropologists in robbing the tribes of their treasures.

Of course even at this late date, the Burke has not seen fit to return all of its ill-acquired pieces. They charge a hefty $9 to see the carvings. None of that money is going back to the tribes who produced the work. In fact, one of the masterpieces of the collection is a black 12-foot-long carved sea-lion that once perched on the ridgetop of a chief’s lodge in the Tlingit village of Tongass, which gave its name to the magnificant rainforest of Southeast Alaska.

The sea-lion was stolen by a group of Seattle tycoons sent to southeast Alaska by the city’s chamber of commerce with the express purpose of coming back with native art that could be displayed as “totems” for the Emerald City. Along with the sea-lion, the group sawed down Chief Kinninook’s tall, elaborately-carved pole which told the story of the Chief-of-All-Women. It was one of the few Tlingit poles dedicated to a woman. Of course, it’s not clear if the men from Seattle had any idea what the pole represented and it wouldn’t have deterred them anyway. The pole was shipped back to Seattle, where it was erected as the “Seattle Totem Pole” in Pioneer Square, It stood ther from 1900 to 1939, when it was burned down by an arsonist.

But the businessmen, who claimed the village of Tongass had been deserted when they raided it, had been seen by a Tlingit elder, who complained to federal officials. A grand jury was convened and indictments for theft were handed down against the thieves. Before the trial began, the businessmen invited the federal judge presiding over the case out for a night of carousing at an elite club in Seattle. The next morning the judge saw fit to dismiss all the charges. Ultimately, the Chamber of Commerce agreed to send the tribe $500 as recompense. But the money was mistakenly sent to the Tsimshian village at Metlakatla. The people of the Tongass never got a dime.

It could have been different. Instead of clinging on to these stolen fragments, the Burke Museum could have returned them to the tribes and hired tribal carvers to make replicas for the museum. This approach could have preserved the artworks and allowed the tribes to control their heritage, while giving work to a new generation of carvers.

Still the Burke’s show at least provides hints at the remarkable range of the art-form and the prowess of the artists: the carvings are powerful, haunting, funny, menacing and some as inscrutible as the strangest creations of Mir?.

Human faces pop up in the carvings like gargoyles on cathedrals: on the tail of a beaver, in the blowhole of a humpback whale, on the wings of a raven and, more ominously, in the belly of a wolf, its tongue hanging out of a mouth studded with grinning teeth.

Some of the crests represent mythical figures from the time when the world was created. It’s easy to imagine a Haida storyteller spinning tales to children in front of a beach fire, using a pole to bring the legends to life. There’s Sisiutl, the double-headed sea dragon, who transforms himself into a speeding war-canoe; Fog Woman who brought the salmon to earth; Huxwhukw, the monster bird, with a long beak, sharp as a loggerhead shrike, which it uses to crack open the skulls of men and slurp out their brains; and mightiest of all the Thunderbird, which swoops down from the sky to snatch killer whales in its talons and carry them back to its mountain eyrie.

The poles and panels are almost always carved from a single western red cedar tree, an old-growth specimen with straight grain, few convolutions and knots and standing close to a river or cove so that the pole can be towed by canoe to the erection site. The art of tree selection is almost as demanding and nuanced as the carving itself. Imagine Michelangelo prowling the marble quarries of Carrera.

The felling of the tree is a complex undertaking. The Tlingit and Haida didn’t have saws, never mind chainsaws. The technique for felling the large cedars, some 12-feet in diameter, was ingenious and certainly dangerous. First the carver ringed the bark of the tree with an adze, then he would would chisel out a hole in the trunk, place glowing hot rocks inside and wait for them to burn out the core of the tree so that it could be pulled down.

It’s tough to build totem poles when all the old-growth cedar has been logged off by big timber companies operating on lands that once belonged to the tribes of the Northwest. That’s the predicament facing today’s carvers. Joe David is one of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth’s greatest young carvers, a man of astounding ability. He lives near the village of Tofino, on heavily clearcut Vancouver Island. He says he finds it almost impossible to find trees tall enough for poles or thick enough for beamposts. Instead, he spends much of his time hiking the beaches looking for logs washed up by the tides. “We’re down to sifting through loggers’ litter now,” he says.

Generally, the chief, like any picky patron, decides what goes on the pole. It is afterall a symbol of his power, klan history, wealth and esteem. But he usually leaves it up to the artist to design the figures, which are first drawn on the pole with charcoal, then carved and painted, often in striking combinations of black, white and red.

The poles are raised to mark important events in the life of the village or the chief: to inaugurate a new house, hail a marriage, celebrate a birth, commemorate a death. Other poles had more down-to-earth purposes. One Tlingit pole shows an unflattering figure of a Russian, looking remarkably like a squat version of Drosselmeyer’s nutcracker, who had seized chucks of tribal land without paying for it. It’s a mockery pole and a wanted poster all in one. Another pole from a Nuu-Chah-Nulth village on Vancouver Island served as a kind of collection notice. This pole depicts Dzunuk’wa, the wild woman of the woods, a kind of tribal banshee, with outstretched arms, drowsy eyes, a howling mouth and pendulous breasts. The chief of the village placed this mocking monument in front of the lodge of his in-laws, who had failed to pay off their marriage debt.

The culture of the Northwest tribes revolved around the potlatch, the big party where debts and feuds were settled, alliances formed, marriages planned and history relived. Most of the totem poles were erected before or during potlatches. In 1884, the Canadian government, seeking to crush native customs and move the tribes off their lands, banned the potlatch. The exhibit deals cautiously with this attempted act of cultural genocide. It’s unfortunate, because this more than any other factor brought to a close the great age of totem pole building.

The repression went far beyond that of course. The government and their Christian emissaries seized the tribes’ ceremonial gear-dresses, masks, puppets, feast dishes, and ladles-and carted them off to museums or hacked them apart in front of aghast tribal members. Children were abducted and sent off to government schools and fed Christian doctrine, a deft and proven way to kill off an oral culture.

It wasn’t just the Canadian tribes who suffered. The Haida and Tlingit also saw their religious customs assaulted and their populations decimated by disease and forced eviction. A Forest Service survey of the Tongass region in 1900 tallied more than 800 totem poles. Thirty years later few than 200 remained and most of those were “harvested” by the agency for museums in Washington, New York and Chicago.

The potlatches didn’t die out completely. They went underground in remote coastal villages, mainly in lands of the Kwakiutl south of the Skeena River. But for the most part the pole raisings had to be abandoned, as they would be a dead-giveaway to the persistence of the potlatch. It wasn’t until 1951 that the bans were lifted and the old ways could be practiced openly again.

In the meantime, the Canadian government wasted no time in looting the remains of the cultures while they had a chance. In the early 1920s, government agents cut down hundreds of poles in Tsimshian villages and re-erected them miles away along the Canadian-Pacific Railway. The Jasper-to-Prince Rupert run offered a popular “Totem Pole Excursion.”

Thus in one stroke the Canadian government moved to extinguish Tsimshian culture and give birth to entho-tourism. Harriman would have been proud.



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3