Tlingit CCC workers at SaxmanThe original caption reads: “Thlinget Indian CCC enrollees, under the supervision of Indian craftsmen, working on the Ebbets Pole (Photo No 10) at the Saxman Indian Village workshop, in the Tongass National Forest.” Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 35-TA. Archival photo processed by Brent McKee.
In 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the Saxman Totem Park. The program was part of a larger U.S. Forest Service effort to employ Alaska Natives and conserve totems and Native cultural assets. Many of the poles that the CCC recovered from abandoned villages were found in an advanced state deterioration, which made conservation difficult. While restoration was the preferred approach, the CCC often opted for recarving, or partial recarving, if the pole could not be salvaged. The park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The master carver at Saxman was Charlie Brown.
The park was designed along a main axis—Totem Road—with totem poles on each side, and a rectangular area enclosed with logs carved with frog heads. Leading to the square, there are two stairways marked by totem poles on each side. The flanking poles represent bear and raven figures, the symbols of the two phratries of the Tlingit people.
Located in the vicinity of Ketchikan, the site brings together totem carvings of the Tlingit people, gathered from abandoned villages and cemeteries of Tongass, Cat, Village, and Pennock Islands and Cape Fox Village. Many inhabitants of the abandoned villages have settled in Saxman. According to Linn A. Forrest, the U.S. Forest Service architect who oversaw the restoration process, the CCC program provided employment for a great number of locals. Whether they were involved in the restoration and carving process as CCC enrollees, or in support activities such as the sourcing of logs or the moving of totems, the Native population benefited from year-round employment while the program lasted.
Before the CCC program, many totems had been left to deteriorate in abandoned villages, as Native populations began to migrate in search of work opportunities. Leaving old totems to rot away was a longstanding Native practice. However, few new poles replaced the deteriorating ones in the early twentieth-century, as the art of totem carving gradually disappeared due to outmigration. The new CCC program enlisted the help of master carvers such and began to train young recruits in the craft of totem carving, thus helping preserve not only Native artifacts, but also cultural practices.
Part of the photographic material published on this page 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.
Garfield, Viola and Linn Forrest, 1961, The Wolf and the Raven, Seattle: University of Washington Press, p. 13-56.
Larry Rakestraw, Totem Pole Restoration, Interview with Linn A. Forrest, August 1, 1971.
Saxman Totem Park, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1979, accessed June 28, 2017.
Project originally submitted by Brent McKee; Steve Forrest (with documentation courtesy of Linn Forrest) on July 6, 2017.
We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.SUBMIT MORE INFORMATION OR PHOTOGRAPHS FOR THIS SITE
I’m curious as to who the artists were who recarved and repaired the poles at Saxman. I’ve visited there twice but I still have no idea who these people were and the places they originally came from. It would be a great tribute to them and the Tlingit legacy of the area to know more about them. Even a list of the provenance of the poles would be helpful. Does any such information exist?
With So much authentic extraordinary art located in one place, there should be more homage to the people who created it. It seems like the Tlingit people who made Saxman possible are still invisible and forgotten.
The new book “Proud Raven, Panting Wolf” should give you all the details you’d want about the carvers and the project.