Totem Carver at SitkaSource: Alaska State Library - Historical Collections. John H. Brillhart Photograph Collection, 1930-1950. ASL-PCA-295.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) restored and recarved totem poles at Sitka, as part of a restoration program that lasted between 1938 and 1941. 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 opted for recarving, or partial recarving, if the pole could not be salvaged. The head carver at Sitka was George Benson (Lkeináa). Some of the totem poles the CCC restored are held today at the Totem Conservation Exhibit at Sitka.
The National Park Service information page for the Sitka National Historical Park describes the artifacts restored by the CCC, now on display at the exhibit: “Displayed outside, against the north, uphill end of the visitor center, you will find the Totem Conservation Exhibit. Saving totem poles is a preservation challenge. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Native carvers hired by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) repaired poles using a variety of methods. Deteriorated totem surfaces were removed and recarved. In many cases, replica portions of deteriorated totems were recarved and ‘applied’ to the original poles. Canvas or lead caps were tacked down over horizontal surfaces to slow water damage. Small wooden wedges or shims were inserted into cracks in the totem wood as filler. Some poles that were too deteriorated to repair were completely recarved.”
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.”
National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park, Totem Trail, accessed August 24, 2017.
National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park, Frog/Raven 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 25, 2017.
We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.SUBMIT MORE INFORMATION OR PHOTOGRAPHS FOR THIS SITE