Trader Legend Pole at SitkaSource: National Park Service
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) carved a copy of the original Trader Legend Pole during a restoration program that lasted between 1938 and 1941. 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 Trader Legend Pole: “This is an example of a ridicule pole, a type of legend pole usually erected to notify everyone of an unpaid debt. The top figure represents a white man, indicated by the use of curly hair and a beard. Perhaps he is a trader who cheated the Haida. The next figure is holding a shrimp in its mouth, a symbol said to represent a thief. The next figure is a crab, also a symbol of thievery. The bottom figure is a beaver, recognized by its teeth and tail. The original pole, donated by Douglas Sukqua in 1903, stood in the Haida village of Sukkwan.
This replica was carved during the 1938-1942 Civilian Conservation Corps project. An interesting sidelight is that while this copy was being made in Sitka, a local story involving an unfair trader grew around it. That story has become so real to some local residents that the pole is assumed to be a Sitka original.“
National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park, Totem Trail, accessed August 24, 2017. National Park Service, Sitka National Historical Park, Trader Legend 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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