When our cruise ship stopped over in Ketchikan, Alaska, I wandered up Creek Street, getting the feel of the place. Then I took a city bus out to the Potlatch Totem Park, which a friend had recommended – he had told me there was a great area where carvers worked on native totem poles. As I walked through the park, with massive totem poles all around, I could hear the sound of hammering – slow and steady. Inside a carving shed a woman was bent over a log stretched out horizontally, chipping away with a hammer and a large metal chisel with a wooden handle. I caught the wonderful scent of fresh cut cedar when I walked in the door. I was lucky – there was no one else around.
The woman noticed me, and nodded a hello as I walked over to where she was working. “Hello there,” she said, “my name is Brita.”
“I hope I’m not intruding, but I’m fascinated by totem poles”, I replied. Looking at the large pole laid out, I was first astonished by the size. “I thought I understood the size of them, but they are much bigger than I realized. This is huge.”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, this one is in the early stages. It’s about 34 feet tall.”
“Do you mind if I watch you work for a bit?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “It’s nice to have someone interested. The tourists mostly walk up to a totem and take a picture, then go back to the ships. And the young people aren’t as interested any more. We’re losing some of the craftsmanship.” She said it with a wistful smile.
“So how does the process work?” She told me that it began with selecting the proper log to form the mast of the
totem. This pole was part of an old growth cedar forest, and when it blew down in a big storm, the forest service told her about it and helped her get it to Potlatch. She was just beginning the forming process. I noticed what looked like thousands of small chipped places along the log, and she told me they were all handmade etchings. They were part of forming the whole object by hand, and the marks were similar to a sculpture – chipping away everything that wasn’t the figures on the pole. The chisel – she called it an adze – had a wooden handle attached to a small metal blade, which she tapped at with the hammer to cut away the excess wood. I watched in amazement as she cut deftly and surely. This was a wonderful part of my Alaska tour.
“So how do you know what to cut? Do you have a map that you lay out of what the final pole will be?”
She smiled, “Yes, I put together a template in my mind, and then work from that. I can move so quickly at this stage because I have a long way to go to before I taper down to the figures that will be the essence of the totem.”
“I’ve heard that Native American totem poles are a religious object to the local tribes.”
“That’s one of the common misconceptions,” she laughed, never stopping her chipping process. She said the missionaries thought totem poles were religious objects, and sacrilegious to them, and for a number of years had their converts burn their totems. But they were never about religion – locals thought of them more as billboards. They told a story – they depicted a record of history, and were a way to honor the heritage of the people. They were carved by a tribe – Tlingit, Haida – and the symbols were those of the clan who built the pole. At the high levels was typically an eagle or raven, and the human figure at the top was a watchman – to look out for danger to the village.
When I asked how much longer it would be until she finished this totem, she said it would likely be a number of months before they could have the ceremony to raise this pole. I wanted to ask about the ceremony, but looked at my watch, and realized I had been talking with her for much longer than I thought. I shook hands with Brita, thanked her profusely for the wonderful depth perception on totem poles, and went to catch the bus back to the cruise ship. I knew I will come back – I was really enjoying my Alaskan cruise, and wanted to spend more time learning about the totem poles Ketchikan, Alaska had in such abundance.
Margaret (Maggie) Weiss is a high energy, adventure seeking, travel-holic. She has traveled the globe looking for her next great expedition. She’s also a mom of 3 beautiful girls and wife. She loves to write about her favorite places to stay and visit with her family and her most recent Alaskan cruise. Follow her on twitter @missmaggieweiss