Saturday, October 15, 2011

Revisiting America

This is the first thing we all wanted to see.
Thw Totem Heritage Center houses a priceless collection of 19th century totem poles and other carvings, retrieved from the Tlingit (the "T" is pronounced like a "k")Indian villages at Tongass Island and Village Island, and from Haida village of Old Kasan, on Prince of Wales Island. In order to be near schools, churches, and the canneries, mines and sawmills that offered employment, these villagers moved to Ketchikan and other towns at the beginning of the 20th century.
With the permission of Native elders, The Alaska State Museum and the Alaska Native Brotherhood, carried out the retrieval of the totem poles, with the elders providing valuable cultural and historical information about the poles. The Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Forest Service provided technical assistance.
Poles in the Heritage Center were carved by Native artists during the heyday of totem pole carving on the Northwest Coast between the middle and end of the 19th century. They are preserved as they were found, all severely weathered, many with the original paint, but much of the original detail intact showing the skill and sophistication of their carvers.
Traditionally, totem poles were carved to honor important individuals, commemorate significant events, and to proclaim the lineage and social standing of their owners. They have great cultural importance because of their tangible references to the people, events, stories, and legends that figure in the oral histories of these Northwest Coast Native peoples. They are not religious objects and have never been worshipped. While the figures on a totem pole might be readily recognizable, the pole's significance or "meaning" can only be known if one knows the purpose and occasion for which it was created, as well as the individuals, groups, or stories associated with it. This information was traditionally introduced when the pole was raised, and then passed down orally from one generation to another,much of the information lost with the passing of time.
The totem poles preserved in the Totem Heritage Center were all carved from the wood of the Western red cedar which dominated the coastal forests from Washington to Southeast Alaska. The red cedar has been the "tree of life" for the Native peoples of the region for thousands of years, using all of the tree for different purposes. The inner bark provided fiber for baskets, mats, rope, and clothing. Dugout canoes up to sixty feet long were fashioned from the trunks, and large communal houses were built with massive cedar posts, beams, and planks. The red cedar was the ideal material for the totem poles because of the straight grain of the wood, it was easily carved, and highly resistant to rot.
The Heritage Center is dedicated to the preservation of the cultural traditions that gave rise to the magnificent totem poles on display, as well as offering classes and workshops about these groups of people in order to strengthen and perpetuate these traditions for future generations. Tours are provided, rotating exhibits and a wonderful collection of baskets, regalia, carvings, and photographs, an extensive library of books, magazines, slides and videos, can be accessed-all of this is available in addition to the totem poles. Needless to say, we spent quite a bit of time in the Center, but we're not through with totem poles.

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