Sitka National Historical Park, Saanaheit Pole – Sitka AK


The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) carved a copy of the original Saanaheit Pole during a restoration program that lasted between 1938 and 1941. The Saanaheit Pole was brought to Sitka from Old Kasaan. The restoration was part of a larger U.S. Forest Service program focused on the conservation of totems and Native cultural assets. Many of the poles that the CCC recovered were found in an advanced state deterioration, which made conservation difficult. While restoration was the preferred approach, the CCC opted for recarving, or partial recarving, if the pole could not be salvaged. The head carver at Sitka was George Benson (Lkeináa).

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. In his 2012 volume, The Most Striking of Objects: The Totem Poles of Sitka National Historical Park, Andrew Patrick notes that the conversion of many Natives to Christianity also contributed to the disappearance of carving traditions. Citing Alison Hoagland (1997, 182), Patrick writes that young Natives from the village of Kake got together to destroy the poles and the bones of the dead with dynamite, while the elders watched in dismay. The new CCC program enlisted the help of master carvers such as George Benson, and began to train young recruits in the craft of totem carving, thus helping preserve not only Native artifacts, but also cultural practices.

In the volume The Most Striking of Objects, Andrew Patrick describes how the New Deal brought an influx of WPA and CCC funding, which helped with the conservation of the totem poles at Sitka: “The involvement of the WPA and the CCC with Sitka’s totem poles began in January 1939. [B. Frank] Heintzleman secured WPA funding for totem pole restoration at Sitka National Monument. Work began on February 18th when Assistant Regional Forester Charles Burdick assessed, photographed, and numbered the poles. […] Funding switched from the WPA to the CCC just a month after the work first began. […] By March 22nd, 1940, all of the totem poles, except for Saanaheit’s which was still being recarved, had been refurbished or replaced.”

The National Park Service information page for the Sitka National Historical Park summarizes the characteristics and history of the figures represented on the Saanaheit Pole: “This sixty-foot pole is a replica of the original Saanaheit Pole, the first pole brought to Sitka National Historical Park. The original Saanaheit Pole was from the Kaigani Haida village of Old Kasaan and was donated to the people of Alaska in 1901 by Chief Saanaheit as a memorial to his people. Over 70 years old at the time it was donated, the Saanaheit Pole is the only historical pole in the park that was collected, came directly to the park, and never left. By the late 1930s, the original pole had seriously deteriorated. Today, only the fragment raven head of the original pole remains, on exhibit in Totem Hall. The raven head is reproduced about mid-way up this pole.

This second generation Saanaheit Pole was carved by a Native crew of Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the early 1940s. One problem the crew encountered was finding a log of adequate height for the reproduction pole. They eventually had to fit the design onto two logs pieced together. The joint is almost hidden by a new support post, but can be seen at the back of the pole.

Although several figures such as the traditional Village Watchman, a bear and Raven are identifiable, other figures are not, and little information about the story of this intricately carved giant has survived.”

Source notes

National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park, Totem Trail, accessed August 24, 2017.

National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park, Saanaheit Pole, accessed August 24, 2017.

Larry Rakestraw, Totem Pole Restoration, Interview with Linn A. Forrest, August 1, 1971.

Hoagland, Alison K. "Totem poles and plank houses: reconstructing native culture in southeast Alaska." Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 6 (1997): 174-185.

Patrick, Andrew. "The most striking of objects: the totem poles of Sitka National Historical Park." (2002), p. 104-121.

Project originally submitted by Brent McKee on August 24, 2017.

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Location Info

Sitka National Historical Park
Sitka, AK

Coordinates: 57.04913848305335, -135.318969682695

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