washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Weekly Sections > Weekend

A Tale of Two Totem Poles

Friday, September 17, 2004; Page WE32

The turn of the 20th century was crawling with them: sailing ships full of scientists and adventurers heading off into the relative unknown in search of new and exotic landscapes ready for "discovery." These expeditions were sometimes frivolous, more often very serious, and a good number of them were bankrolled by wealthy industrialists and organized around the central principle of bringing back lots of stuff.

The George W. Elder was one such ship, outfitted by railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman with geologists, botanists, archaeologists, nature writers, assorted Harriman family members and other passengers, 126 people in all. (On board were John Muir, the originator of the American conservation movement, and the young photographer Edward Curtis, in the earliest stages of his career-long effort to document the lives of Native Americans.) The luxuriously appointed Elder set off northward from Seattle on the last day of May 1899, and after much hunting and fishing, naming of glaciers and a monumental environmental survey of the Alaskan coast, the expedition was on its return leg in July when it entered a small body of water called Cape Fox and happened upon a Gilded Age explorer's dream: The fully intact but deserted Tlingit Indian village of Gaash. Soon the Elder was sitting a few inches lower in the water, weighed down with housewares, building fronts, totem poles and hundreds of other Tlingit artifacts.

Here, of course, we need to closely parse our terminology. What Harriman and Co. perceived as "deserted" is described by modern Tlingit historians as "temporarily uninhabited." The various clans of Tlingits, occupants of a great swath of southeast Alaska since at least 500 B.C., were sometimes in the habit of leaving their villages for the summer hunting and fishing season, and diseases such as smallpox could also spur the temporary exodus of entire communities. Harriman's actions would today clearly be labeled "theft"; in the context of the scientific and archaeological mores of 1899, curators at the National Museum of the American Indian generally prefer to use the more purely descriptive "removal."

This trove of Tlingit artifacts soon scattered, as such large hauls usually did, into various university, institutional and Harriman family collections. One item, a totem pole with the name of Hoots Kooteeya, taken from its place in front of Chief Thomas Johnson's Brown Bear Clan House at Gaash, was in 1904 given to the New York Zoological Society (popularly known as the Bronx Zoo). It remained there until 1942, when the zoo began to clean house for a remodeling and donated the pole to the Museum of the American Indian, precursor to the new museum. The curators at MAI brought the pole to their storage and research facility in the East Bronx, where it stood on the facility's grounds as part of a kind of ad hoc diorama, greeting the scholars and museum employees arriving each day to study the museum's collection until the 1980s, when four decades of exposure to the elements finally produced a noticeable level of deterioration. The pole was then covered with a makeshift shelter, out of sight and presumably out of mind.

The Tlingit Indians, though, had never forgotten the pole or the way it had left their land. In 1995, as the planning for the new national museum gained momentum, officials of the Cape Fox Village Corp., representing the descendants of Gaash's Brown Bear Clan, requested the return of the totem pole and other objects from the Harriman expedition under the newly established museum's repatriations program. The case was open and shut, with clear chronological lines leading to a clear geographical and tribal origin, and by July 2001, Hoots Kooteeya had been carefully crated and was heading home.

The story might have ended there, with no role to play in the opening of the Mall's new museum, except for the Tlingit's gift of a large cedar tree and, equally important, of the services of tribal artist Nathan Jackson, one of America's preeminent master pole carvers. The result of Jackson's labors, a new design paying homage to the earlier pole, is now part of the permanent collection of the museum and illustrates the Tlingit story of Kaats, a most unlucky bear hunter: Kaats, it seems, failed on one hunt so miserably that he was trapped inside the cave of a she-bear, who, in the way of many such traditional tales, fell in love with her charge, forbidding him at first to leave the cave and, later, to make contact with his human relations. The story has many variants, few of which end happily for poor Kaats, who is usually eaten by his own children, the bear cubs borne during his long years of captivity. It's a story with a lesson for lazy hunters, but it's also meant to entertain, and most importantly it's a story about bears, the patron spirits of the Gaash descendants. If you can manage the view, check out the loon image on the back of the pole, a reference to the animal that is traditionally credited with teaching the members of the Brown Bear Clan the art of going underneath the winter ice.

-- Scott W. Berg


© 2004 The Washington Post Company