Effort afoot to save Ketchikan totem poles

Posted: Thursday, May 03, 2001

KETCHIKAN (AP) -- For years totem poles have told their stories.

Those stories have lasted for generations among the Natives of Southeast Alaska. But while the traditional accounts remain, many of the totems that described them do not.

Ketchikan's Chief Johnson and Chief Kyan poles are two exceptions, however, in the form of aging replicas that are still standing. And because of a preservation effort, the two poles should continue to tell their stories for several more years.

Three members of the Tongass Tribe, along with the help of a conservator, have started cleaning the two totems, which have become dirty and discolored after years of exposure to Southeast Alaska's harsh weather.

''Im glad the totems are being taken care of,'' said Robert Jackson, 22, a Tongass Tribe member helping with the project with his father, Willard Jackson, 53. The two are members of the Tongass Tribes Bear-Eagle Clan.

The pair helped clean the poles in April and will continue working on them until early this month. ''It feels good to take care of our poles. This is our culture. It explains who we are,'' Robert Jackson said, pointing to the Chief Kyan pole, which stands in downtown Ketchikan's Whale Park.

''Ive been looking forward to doing this since I first heard about the project,'' said Andrew Todd, a conservator consulting on the preservation effort.

First, moss, lichen and dirt is removed with bristle brushes and soft wood scrapers. Then the poles are washed with a biodegradable detergent. After theyre cleaned, a preservative is applied to the totems to prevent further growth of moss and lichen. Once the poles are dry, a special water repellent is added to protect the wood and hold in the preservative.

After that, the tribe will discuss whether to repaint parts of the poles, Todd said.

This isn't the first time Todd has worked with Ketchikan totem poles. In 1987, Todd said he recommended preserving totems lying in a shed near Ketchikan Creek. Today, some of those totems are on display at the Totem Heritage Center.

Willard Jackson, whose brother Israel Shotridge carved the Chief Johnson and Chief Kyan poles, said it's important to have Todd helping with the project because he is recognized as someone who respects the tribes artifacts.

''I'm just looking for things to go in a peaceful manner, so that things go well and we can get in touch with our ancestors,'' Willard Jackson said. ''That is what this is all about.''

The Chief Johnson pole was raised in 1989, and stands at the south end of the Centennial Parking Lot near the location of the original, which was raised in 1901. That pole is now housed in the Totem Heritage Center.

The Chief Kyan pole is the second reproduction of the original pole that was carved in the early 1900s. Today's pole was raised in 1993, according to the Ketchikan museum. The first replica of the Chief Kyan pole was carved in the 1960s and now sits in the Totem Heritage Center.

Also helping with the preservation of the poles is Bob Johnson, a member of the Tongass Tribes Raven Clan. Willard Jackson said having his son work on the project is special, but Johnson's help is equally important.

Johnson, 41, was surprised he was asked to take part in the project.

''I was told it would help to have someone from my clan actually working on these poles,'' Johnson said. ''And the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a good idea.''

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