November 30, 2019 by Deborah W. Trotter
If you ever find yourself in Sitka, Alaska – unlikely, given its remoteness, unless it is your destination – you won’t want to miss the Sitka National Historical Park. A lovely network of shaded, level trails takes you through forests of hemlock and spruce trees, along the banks of the Indian River and the shores of Sitka Sound, where you are likely to see bald eagles – almost as ubiquitous in Sitka as seagulls in San Francisco – and you are certain to see totem poles.
The poles were originally donated by Tlingit and Haida tribes of Southeast Alaska at the request of the governor to be part of an exhibit about Alaska that he was tasked with creating for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904. Governor Brady believed that these iconic and beautiful cultural pieces would draw people into the exhibit where they would then learn more about the distant state of Alaska and its attractiveness for tourism and development. At the conclusion of the months-long exposition in St. Louis, which attracted millions of visitors, the poles were moved to Portland, Oregon, where they were displayed as part of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905.
Finally, they made the long journey back to Alaska where they arrived in January of 1906. After being repaired, they were put on permanent display at the National Historical Park, erected along the seaside portion of the trail. Although they appear to be rooted in the forest just like the trees, different totem poles have come and gone over the past 100 years as they have been re-carved and/or repainted and replaced when necessary.
Each totem pole tells a story, and there are recognizable creatures, such as ravens, eagles, frogs and bears, and other features common to many of them. They are powerful symbols and beautiful works of art that keep the past very much alive in the present and provide links between cultures.