Book explains totem poles' significance

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2004

Totem poles are an emblem of Alaska, famous the world over. Yet many misconceptions persist about them, and the interesting facts of their artistic, historical and cultural roles are little known.

"Alaska's Totem Poles," a new guide, brings the truth to light. In a compact format it explains what the poles really are, how they fit into the broader cultural context of Southeastern Alaska and how observers can "read" them.

Author Pat Kramer, a specialist on Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest, has written several other books about travel in the region.

"The meanings of totem poles have evolved greatly since contact with Europeans in the late 1700s," she writes. "... Today, totem crests are used to express Alaska's pride in all of its people, the land, its commemorative occasions, flourishing cultures and rich traditions."

The book honors the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people who created the poles and provides a well-done overview of their cultures. The author clearly has worked with the tribes to create an authoritative and balanced account. Tsimshian carver David A. Boxley contributed the introduction, which emphasizes the importance of the poles and their renaissance in our time.

"Totem poles are so much more than carved cedar," he writes. "They literally stand for who we are."

Kramer begins by discussing the importance of old-growth cedar as a material and outlining the carving process.

She then launches into an interesting summary of the art form's history. In a small book it is impossible to be comprehensive, but she conveys much in few words. The totem poles, she says, were not indigenous for untold generations, but probably derived from smaller carvings fairly recently and did not achieve wide prominence until European contacts introduced metal tools that facilitated woodworking. They reached their apex in the 19th century, when increased trade brought affluence to the Native nobility, but faded when epidemics and social change depopulated coastal villages and undermined traditional forms of expression. Only in the second half of the 20th century did totem-pole carving revive, under the guidance of masters, many of whom are still at work.

The mid-section of the book describes styles, coloration and the traditional design elements found on extant poles. Kramer has taken pains to research the legends and social symbols behind the design elements, called crests, and shows how the poles incorporate mythology and oral history.

The resulting totem poles emerge as complex cultural symbols, somewhat analogous to flags or heraldry, expressing moods as diverse as memorials to the deceased, retellings of ancient myths and humorous jibes at the living.

The last part of the book answers a series of frequently asked questions about totem poles and provides a city-by-city guide of where to view them in the United States. Although most are in Southeast, there are listings ranging from Fairbanks to Seattle. The closest listing to the Kenai Peninsula is for Anchorage, where authentic poles are displayed at the railroad station, the state courthouse, the Alaska Native Medical Center, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Kramer was careful to make the book timely and detailed, listing changes made in 2004, museum and tour phone numbers and even offering readers a Web site where they can submit additional totem-pole questions.

The photographs, although small and functional more than artsy, are attractive and appropriate. They include not only images of contemporary poles, but historic pictures and quality photographs of artists. The small format, however, limits their numbers and impact.

The text is focused and informative. It is well written on the whole, although a few portions could be clearer.

"Alaska's Totem Poles" does not pretend to be the last word on the subject. It does not delve into artists' biographies, tutor readers on how to create totems or present a gallery of surviving works.

Instead, it is written for observers who wish to appreciate the art form. For such readers, it provides a real service: a comprehensive and compact insight into totem poles presented in an attractive and accessible way. For anyone planning to visit Southeast Alaska and seek out totem poles, this book is a valuable aid.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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