Saxman Totem Park, Giant Rock Oyster Pole – Saxman AK


The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) relocated the Giant Rock Oyster Pole from a village in Southeast Alaska to the newly established Saxman Totem Park. The CCC set up a totem restoration project in 1938 and Tlingit carvers enrolled in the CCC lead the work.

In the 1961 volume, The Wolf and the Raven, anthropologist Viola Garfield and architect Linn Forrest describe the visual characteristics of the Giant Rock Oyster Pole: “On the Giant Rock Oyster pole are carved the emblems of four related house groups of the Nexadi clan, descendants of Eagle Claw House, whose crest appears at the top of the pole. The human body with claws instead of feet symbolizes the members of Eagle Claw House as distinct from other Eagle clansmen. The beaver below the eagle is the crest of the Beaver Dam House, while the second beaver is the emblem of Beaver Tail House. The face at the base of the pole symbolizes Giant Rock Oyster House. All three of these house groups are offshoots or subdivisions of the parent Eagle Claw House. This pole is a kind of genealogical record of the relationship of the four house groups to each other and was dedicated as a memorial to deceased members. The man whose hand is caught in the oyster recalls the tragedy that gave his relatives their name. The Giant Rock Oyster totem was brought from Cape Fox in 1938, where it stood in Front of the Eagle Claw House. Two very unusually carved corner posts from this House were brought to the Saxman workshop for preservation. Each was carved to represent the foreleg of the eagle with the “knee” resting on the ground and the claws supporting the end of the back, and the decoration occurs only on the section of the post that would be visible in side the house. These eagle-leg posts are, however, carved in the round. The selection of the leg as a design is also very unusual for in the great majority of carvings the whole body was used, even though distorted and rearranged to conform to the highly formalized conventions of the art style.”

The photographic material published here by the Living New Deal was provided by courtesy of Linn A. Forrest (1905-1986), a practicing architect who photographed the totem poles at the time of their restoration, between 1939 and 1941. Forrest oversaw the joint program of the Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps to recruit Alaska native carvers in the restoration and recarving of totem poles throughout Southeast Alaska. Employed by the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon, Forrest transferred to Juneau, Alaska in 1937, where he undertook the totem restoration as one of his first projects. Under his supervision, indigenous carvers preserved and restored 103 totem poles and three Tlingit and Haida community houses. Forrest documented the restoration process and maintained notes and a photo record of a significant portion of the work. He used a Leica camera designed for the then new Kodachrome 35mm color slide format.

Source notes

Garfield, Viola and Linn Forrest, 1961, The Wolf and the Raven, Seattle: University of Washington Press, p. 13-56.

Saxman Totem Park, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1979, accessed July 1, 2017.

Project originally submitted by Linn Forrest and Steve Forrest on July 8, 2017.

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Location Info

Saxman Totem Park
Saxman, AK

Coordinates: 55.319537302461455, -131.59704821667174

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