Author Emily Moore discusses her book on totem parks

Dr. Emily Moore, Associate Professor of Art History at Colorado State University, gives a talk Wednesday at the Ketchikan Public Library about her recent book, “Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska's New Deal Totem Parks.” Charles Brown, a Tlingit carver from Saxman, was one of the lead carvers on the Civilian Conservation Corps poles in Saxman and Totem Bight. Photo by Hall Anderson

Author Emily Moore, who grew up in Ketchikan and now is an assistant professor of art history at Colorado State University, talked about the research presented in her new book, “Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal Totem Parks,” on the afternoon of July 12 at the Kootéeyaa Koffee House in Saxman.

The book details the effects that the depression-era New Deal program had between 1938 and 1942 on the creation of totem parks in Hydaburg, Kasaan, Ketchikan, Klawock, Saxman and Wrangell, and how those projects affected Native land claims. The Civilian Conservation Corps, which headed up the creation of the totem parks under President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, was formed in 1933.

Moore explained to the audience packed into the warm cafe filled with the aroma of coffee and freshly baked cookies that under the CCC program, 121 totem poles were restored, replicated or newly carved by nearly 200 Tlingit and Haida carvers during that time period.

 The CCC originally only allowed white men to enroll, Moore said. The Alaska Native Brotherhood, in 1937, petitioned Congress to allow Native people to enroll in the CCC, resulting in a law requiring that 50% of all CCC enrollees in Alaska from 1938 on be Native.

Moore said one of the questions she had while researching her book, which began as a dissertation project, was, “Why did the federal government want to pour so much money into restoring totem poles?”

She said what she’d learned about the CCC administrators’ initial attitude was that they were less than enthusiastic.

“When the CCC applied to the federal government for funding, the CCC administrators called it the ‘boondoggliest of boondoggles,’” Moore said. “Why should we actually restore all of these totem poles in remote Southeast Alaskan islands?”

Enthusiasm for supporting American arts and projects grew after World War I, however. In 1941, for instance, the major exhibit, “Indian Art of the United States” was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

“It was really to try to educate Americans about the richness of indigenous design tradition in the United States,” Moore said.

At that exhibit, a heraldic totem pole stood near the museum’s entrance. It was carved by John Wallace, a Haida lead carver for the CCC totem pole restoration program in Hydaburg.

Another question Moore said she sought to answer was why did Native people agree to sign over poles for restoration or replacement.

“Preserving them in these very alien contexts of a totem park was really strange,” she said. Traditionally, poles were allowed to rot and a new one would be created.

One reason people have postulated is that Native people needed the jobs that the CCC offered. However, Moore said she learned, from talking with Native elders, that it wasn’t quite that simple.

“What was really emphasized to me by the elders that I interviewed,” Moore said, “was the fact that the totem parks were not just about economic necessity. It was about a political and cultural means to revive culture and to engage with the federal government on one of the most important battles that was going on in the inter-war period — and that was the battle for Tlingit and Haida land claims.”

Concurrently with the CCC totem park program, was a lawsuit addressing Native land claims. In its 1929 convention, Moore said, the ANB voted to make land claims to the Tongass National Forest its number-one priority, as the federal government had set aside that national forest without consulting Natives.

In 1935, President Roosevelt signed the jurisdictional act, recognizing that the Tlingit and Haida tribes did have a claim and the right to sue the federal government. In 1939, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians was established as the federally recognized tribe that would be allowed to negotiate the settlement.

Testimony for the suit was delayed by the outbreak of World War II, Moore said, but re-started in 1944. In 1959, it was ruled that the Tlingit and Haida did deserve compensation for their lands.

In 1968, a $7.5 million settlement by the federal government was made, which ultimately laid the groundwork for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

The significance of the totem pole project to the lawsuit was significant.

Many were entered as evidence in the lawsuit, to establish Native “continual use and occupancy” of the lands.

“This was really exciting to me,” Moore told the coffee house patrons. “I hadn’t known that, before talking with community members here.”

One pole, for instance, which Moore projected on a screen, depicted the Sockeye Salmon pole in the Klawock CCC park. It featured a traditional rock enclosure that clearly was a “record of title of this bear clan to owning that sockeye stream,” Moore said.

The Spirit of Hazy Island pole, also in Klawock, helped to prove one clan’s traditional rights to gather murre eggs at that island. Prior to that evidence, collecting eggs in that location had been considered stealing by the federal government.

According to Moore, anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt and lawyer Theodore Haas, who were hired by the Office of Indian Affairs to chart Tlingit and Haida claims, wrote that “title to land and other property was frequently recorded in totem poles. Nowhere among unlettered peoples in North American was there so clear a recording of property ownership as among these Northwest Coast people.”

The CCC totem park project was a powerful tool to allow for the recognition of the tribes’ land claims, as well as for their culture. Moore called the four-year totem park program “massive,” and “one of the largest expenditures on Native American art in the entire 20th century.”

Moore said also, “I think the coolest thing was talking to Native elders who had family members who had worked in the parks.”

She explained that she had talked with Claude Morrison, who had carved for the CCC, and he helped her understand how significant those parks were. During that time, there was strong discrimination against Natives, as well as no recognition of their land claims in Southeast Alaska.

“To have the government suddenly show an interest in this one aspect of culture,” Moore said, “I think Tlingit and Haida leaders really found a way to seize that opportunity.”

Although it was “weird” to move totem poles from their traditional locations to parks, “I think Tlingit and Haida leaders kind of ran with it, because it was the one opportunity they had to dialogue with the federal government,” Moore added.

It also was a positive change from the earlier years when missionaries and government officials had pressured Natives to abandon the poles, as they were seen either as pagan or unnecessary.

The first step in the CCC totem park program, Moore said, was that the Forest Service sent representatives, in 1937 and 1938, on reconnaissance missions to assess where the poles were and which ones were “worthy of restoration.”

When the poles were identified as candidates, the government then sought permission from claimants to move the poles. Moore said she found the photos, with the claimants’ names noted on the backs, at the Ketchikan Ranger District building.

“That was a huge decision for Native families,” Moore said. “To decide — were they going to allow the Forest Service to chop down their poles” and remove them for restoration?

The memorandums of agreement that resulted are now stored in the National Archives at Seattle, Moore said.

“This memorandum was hugely controversial,” Moore said.

The main points were that claimants would agree to allow the poles to be moved to a publicly owned site, when traditionally, the poles were owned by clans. Once moved, taxpayer money would be used to restore the poles, and by law, the money couldn’t be used to restore private property.

One category of totem poles — those at gravesites — rarely were transferred to the Forest Service.

The second step was to actually transport the poles. They were often laid down on a corduroy road of small trees as they were dragged to the beach to be loaded on scows or to be towed behind boats.

The poles then were brought to CCC camps where the carvers could begin their work. In Saxman, Moore said, carvers worked in the old ANB hall basement. William Brown and his son, Charles Brown, were the lead Saxman carvers. CCC carvers were paid $2 per day, which was equal to CCC white worker pay.

“That was important work during the depression,” Moore said.

Carvers placed priority on restoring poles, but when they had to replicate, they worked with precision.

Carver Morrison told Moore that he remembered using calipers to accurately copy old totem designs onto the replica totems.

The first Saxman totem park pole raised was the Sun Raven pole, in 1939, Moore said. The park location had been chosen in part to attract the attention of steamers passing by.

“One of the end games of this New Deal program was to attract tourists, so it would provide a long-term economy,” Moore explained to the coffee shop audience.

Among laughter, one attendee called out, “It worked too well!”

Moore said that all CCC totem parks were designed by U.S. Forest Service architect Linn Forrest, who also designed the Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood. His approach was to design the totem parks to give the feeling of a sculpture park, to help make the totems seem less “grotesque” and more accessible to tourists.

The parks also became a way for Native elders to share their traditional culture with the younger generation, Moore said.

“To have these totem poles brought back into contemporary Native communities where elders could now tell the new generation those stories of the poles was really powerful,” Moore said she learned by talking with such elders and carvers as Morrison.

Sitting at a table before her presentation began, Moore talked about how she originally became focused on researching the history of the CCC totem parks project, as well as on digging up facts about that program playing an important role in Native land claims.

She said she began to realize, the more she studied historical texts about Southeast Alaska, that not much had been written about the totem parks. The writings she did find were dismissive of them, as being “touristy and inauthentic” arts and of the CCC program as being “bogus.”

“Growing up here, that didn’t seem to square with what I’d seen of how communities really use them for the carving shed, for ceremonies in the winter,” she said.

Her hardbound book, which runs to 252 pages — which includes four pages listing the names of the people involved in the creation of the totem parks; 34 pages of references and a 12-page index — also is full of historical photos, including a middle section in full color.

The book is available locally at Parnassus bookstore downtown, Moore said, and she announced to the cafe audience that all royalties from the sale of the book “will go back to the programs that support Northwest Coast Native art.”

Moore also presented her book and research Wednesday evening at an event at the Ketchikan Public Library.

“I hope people can really appreciate the depth of significance of the parks,” she said. “I think they’re so much more important than tourist attractions. I think they came at a really important time in the federal relationship between Tlingit and Haida tribes and the federal government helped pave the way for the land claims settlement that helped result in ANCSA actually, because the totem poles that were restored here were entered into the lawsuit as evidence of Tlingit and Haida title to lands.”

She said that the most enjoyable part of her research work was interacting with the people.

“It was so awesome to get to be part of the community,” she said.