During the New Deal, the federal government took an unprecedented step toward preserving Native American art: It funded an effort to repair and replicate scores of totem poles in southeast Alaska.
Alaska, then a U.S. territory, was suffering from chronic unemployment during the Great Depression. Between 1938 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed Native Alaskans to identify, locate, and restore deteriorating totem poles. The poles were sometimes relocated to “totem parks” the CCC built to draw tourism to towns and villages.
The red cedar poles are carved and sometimes painted with family crests and images of animals. Traditionally placed along waterfronts, the totems mark family houses, clan gathering sites, and gravesites. Some “storytelling” poles serve to pass on clan knowledge and customs from generation to generation.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, “By the end of the Depression, 48 poles had been restored, 54 duplicated, and 19 new totems carved” by CCC workers. Unfortunately, no one has a conducted a definitive inventory of the CCC-era totem poles, believed to total 121.
Living New Deal researcher, Brent McKee managed to cobble together a list from various books and online sources. He has identified 63 poles, with names such as “The Spirit of Hazy Island Pole,” “The Giant Clam Pole,” “Sitting Bear Grave Marker,” and “The Lincoln Totem Pole,” carved in honor of Abraham Lincoln.
Brent says he thinks a few of the original CCC poles are probably still standing. Others have been taken down due to poor condition, or left to deteriorate on the ground and replaced with new poles, according to Native tradition. Still others are in warehouses and work sheds undergoing restoration or being replicated onto new poles. No active inventory exists, so their names, locations, and current status are largely unknown,
“But research builds on top of previous research,” says Brent. “It is my hope that the Living New Deal can map most or all of the totem poles I have found—even with imprecise geographical coordinates—and thereby (hopefully) spark more research into these historic and fascinating artworks.”