CCC Totem Pole Inventory Needed

Totem poles located to a park in Hydaburg in 1941

Totem Park
Poles located to a park in Hydaburg in 1941

During the New Deal, the federal government took an unprecedented step toward preserving Native American art: It funded an effort to repair and replicate scores of totem poles in southeast Alaska.

Alaska, then a U.S. territory, was suffering from chronic unemployment during the Great Depression. Between 1938 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed Native Alaskans to identify, locate, and restore deteriorating totem poles. The poles were sometimes relocated to “totem parks” the CCC built to draw tourism to towns and villages.

CCC men restore a totem pole in Saxman, 1939

Totem Carvers
CCC men restore a totem pole in Saxman, 1939
Photo Credit: US Forest Service

The red cedar poles are carved and sometimes painted with family crests and images of animals. Traditionally placed along waterfronts, the totems mark family houses, clan gathering sites, and gravesites. Some “storytelling” poles serve to pass on clan knowledge and customs from generation to generation.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, “By the end of the Depression, 48 poles had been restored, 54 duplicated, and 19 new totems carved” by CCC workers. Unfortunately, no one has a conducted a definitive inventory of the CCC-era totem poles, believed to total 121.

Living New Deal researcher, Brent McKee managed to cobble together a list from various books and online sources. He has identified 63 poles, with names such as “The Spirit of Hazy Island Pole,” “The Giant Clam Pole,” “Sitting Bear Grave Marker,” and “The Lincoln Totem Pole,” carved in honor of Abraham Lincoln.

Trader Legend Pole: This replica of a pole in Sukkwan was carved during the 1938-1942 CCC project

Trader Legend Pole
This replica of a pole in Sukkwan was carved during the 1938-1942 CCC project.
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Brent says he thinks a few of the original CCC poles are probably still standing. Others have been taken down due to poor condition, or left to deteriorate on the ground and replaced with new poles, according to Native tradition. Still others are in warehouses and work sheds undergoing restoration or being replicated onto new poles. No active inventory exists, so their names, locations, and current status are largely unknown,

“But research builds on top of previous research,” says Brent. “It is my hope that the Living New Deal can map most or all of the totem poles I have found—even with imprecise geographical coordinates—and thereby (hopefully) spark more research into these historic and fascinating artworks.”

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

2 comments on “CCC Totem Pole Inventory Needed

  1. I recently visited the CCC Museum at O’leno (Florida) State Park near High Springs FL. There is a small totem on display there. It may have been part of the one of the CCC buildings near the Santa Fe River and removed following a flood several years ago. The small museum was created by a local chapter of CCC alumni (CCC Legacy group doesn’t meet locally any longer). If requested I can provide some photos of the totem, I don’t think this artifact is on the State Park website. Thanks,

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