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Historical Totem Pole Raised In Park

Sitka National Historical Park

National Park News

Glittering sunlight burst suddenly through the dreary rain clouds above the dripping rainforest last Saturday and onto hundreds of people below heaving on soaking wet ropes to raise a huge totem pole carved with red and black figures into the sky. Village watchmen figures, carved back-to-back into the top of the 40-foot cedar log, took their place as park sentries, charged with guarding the visitor center below from opposite directions. One watchman looks toward the Pacific Ocean and the other toward Baranof Island’s mountains, protecting those who will come to experience Sitka National Historical Park in perpetuity.

The newest addition to Sitka National Historical Park’s totem pole collection, known as the Yaadaas Crest pole, is a carved replica of one of the park’s original thirteen totem poles. The original Yaadaas Crest pole was given to Alaska territorial governor John G. Brady in 1903 by Kaigani Haida clan leader, John Baronovich. Several other Haida and Tlingit clan leaders also donated poles to Brady. The poles became the entrance display to the Alaska exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, or world’s fair, held in St. Louis in 1904. The poles also traveled to the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition held in Portland. Baronovich and four other village leaders traveled with Brady and the Alaska exhibit to help repair the poles and oversee their installation at both world’s fairs.

In 1906, Governor Brady brought this totem pole collection to Sitka’s “government park,” established in 1890, and raised them as memorials to the Haida people and as a future attraction for the town. This new Yaadaas Crest pole replica commemorates the 1906 placement of Brady’s totem pole collection along the rainforest trails of what would become Sitka National Monument, and the first Alaska National Park area, in 1910.  The Yaadaas Crest pole has been re-carved throughout the busy 2006 summer season at the park’s visitor center by Kaigani Haida brother carvers, Joseph and Timothy Young.

The Young brothers were chosen to carve this replica pole through the unique partnership work between the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Sitka National Historical Park, and the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center. Through a memorandum of understanding between the park and tribe, funding for the totem pole was contracted to the tribe, and they managed the totem pole carving project after their discovery of the Young brothers, who have familial connections to the original Yaadaas clan of Old Kasaan. Cultural activities related to the totem pole carving project ranging from the donation of the log by the park’s primary cultural demonstration partner, the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, to the blessing of the log, the carving and pole raising, and the final potlatch celebration at Sitka’s tribal community house Saturday evening have been managed by the tribe in partnership with the park.

Many Haida elders and community members traveled from Prince of Wales Island to be part of the Yaadaas Crest pole raising. They were welcomed by the Tlingit people of Sitka, led by the Kik.sadi frog clan on whose homeland is Sitka National Historical Park. This pole raising event blended both Haida and Tlingit protocol in new and historical ways. During the day’s festivities, both peoples welcomed each other’s role in this great pole’s raising. Both the Tlingit and Haida elders spoke of the honor and privilege of being together for this historical occasion. This event seems to be the beginning to build future bridges between both cultural groups.

Original sections of the Yaadaas Crest pole, carved some time between 1885 and1893, remain inside an exhibit area where they’ve been since the 1990’s, when the pole was removed from the park trail system to better protect it as its condition had deteriorated. From its 1910 designation, Sitka National Historical Park had been at the challenging forefront of trying to learn how to protect cedar totem poles that stand in a temperate rainforest that receives over 90 inches of rain each year. For many years, patching, the addition of cement bases, and chemical dipping were some methods tried to preserve totem poles into perpetuity. Today the preferred method of preserving totem poles is re-carving their figures in order to maintain original totem pole designs and stories for generations to come.

Thus, the National Park Service has come full circle in Sitka through its partnership with the Alaska Native peoples whose homeland and cultural items are protected here. Instead of forging ahead with science alone to guide us in the protection of precious cultural items, living cultural traditions have shown us the way to conserve the park’s unique items for generations to come. And in the process, through pole carving and raising events, the park not only preserves the objects themselves, but also assists in preserving the active cultural knowledge and artistry that will cultivate both carvings and their carvers well into the future.


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