Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Totem Square Pole in Sitka is Restored

In November 2011, business owners, various federal, state, and city officials, Native elders, and children gathered at Totem Square in Sitka, Alaska for the ceremonious return of an iconic totem pole which had been removed for restoration.
2011 Totem today courtesy of Frank Barnes USDA FS
 The work was done by local totem pole expert Tommy Joseph at the Southeast Indian Cultural Center in the Sitka National Historic Park Visitor Center. Over the years, experts have learned that old restoration techniques could actually be harmful, so some of the earlier restorative work was removed. The original design drawing by George Benson was used to insure authenticity.
The Totem Square pole, standing 40 feet tall, has an interesting and controversial past.  Beginning in 1935, many poles were carved by the Civil Conservation Corps under the supervision of the Forest Service. In 1941, George Lewis, a local Tlingit, proposed to the Forest Service that a special pole be carved in Sitka. Forest Service architect Linn Forest asked another local Tlingit, George Benson to complete the design to honor the Russian era and the Russian dealings with Chief Keeks-Sady of Sitka. The intention was for Natives working for the Sitka office of the CCC to complete the carving, and the pole would be placed on Forest Service property.
Unfortunately, when the time came to start the pole, the carvers were all committed to other CCC projects. Much to the displeasure of the Sitkans, the pole design and a specially cut red cedar log were shipped to Wrangell. A year later, when the finished pole was delivered back to Sitka, it was not welcomed and people even threatened to deface it. Some people felt the design had been changed to ridicule the Russian occupation of Alaska instead of honoring it. (Medinger, 2008)
Andrew Hope, speaking for the Kiksadi Clan of Sitka, felt that the pole did not represent the truth about the Native relations with the Russians. (Hope, 1942)  At this point, there was even talk about whether the Forest Service should have commissioned it in the first place. Despite these protests, the pole was raised, the controversy was put aside, and the pole became the focus of the square. At the 2011 reinstallation of the pole, Nels Lawsonof the Kaagwaantaan (and Forest Service retiree), after first recognizing the Kiksadi, said, “The intent of the pole was to recognize the people of Sitka, and I would like that to be how we move forward into the future for our children and grandchildren. Gunalchéesh.”(Ronco, 2011)
While the pole was gone, the park site underwent extensive restoration work. First, repair work, and then additional cosmetic work was done on the seawall to make it more attractive and more functional. This work included new rockwork, new railings and new low-key lighting. The entire lawn area was removed, graded, and replanted with sod and shrubs. New benches and walkways were installed to give the square more of a park-like atmosphere.
Totem Square fronts the town hall, Pioneer’s Home, the channel, the Totem Square Hotel, and downtown Sitka. A 2007 study concluded that Totem Square is a key destination for tourists, so without the pole, “Totem Square ceases to reflect its name.” With the restored pole once again in place, the citizens of Sitka have a renewed pride in their town square.
Hope, A. (1942, March 16). letter to Mr. Hearst, Indian Office, Juneau, AK. Sitka, Ak.
Medinger, B. (2008, January 24). Chronology / History of Baranof Totem Pole. Sitka, AK.
Ronco, E. (2011, November 30). Controversial Totem Pole Returns to Totem Square. KCAW Radio. Sitka, AK.
By Frank Barnes, Information Receptionist, Sitka Ranger District

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