You don’t have to look too far to see a totem pole in Ketchikan – your best bet is to visit the Saxman Native Village, home to the world’s largest standing collection of totem poles. On one of the most popular Ketchikan Alaska excursions, you can immerse yourself in the culture, beliefs, and customs of the Tlingit tribe. You will learn that the totems tell the story of the Tlingit Indians, or People of the Tides, who lived in the Pacific Northwest long before explorers and new settlers arrived.
Stories and legends of the Native American tribe are seen in the totem poles. The figures on the poles represent mythical beings from the tribe’s ancestral past. Often the stories may relate to the supernatural and usually involve transformation of people into animals or animals and supernatural beings into humans.
Always, the totem poles served as an emblem of a family or clan. The word “totem” comes from the Algonquian word “dodem,” which had the original meaning of “to be related to someone,” such as a family or clan. As majestic as totem poles are and as an important representation of a particular family, they are never worshiped. Symbols of the Tlingit tribe included the raven, owl, salmon, wolf and eagle, among many other animals. Interpretations of the animals range from the Divine Spirit (the eagle) to Rebirth and Wisdom (the snake).
Do you know the expression, “low man on the totem pole”? At first it was believed that the higher figures on the pole were the most important. That myth is debunked when we come to understand that the bottom of the pole required extra-special attention because spectators view this area closely. In fact, the lower figures are carved by the chief carver, and the story is less important at the top of the totem pole where often a Thunderbird is placed.
The Thunderbird is also certainly imbued with meaning because it represents a powerful spirit. When the thunderbird blinks, lightning is believed to flash from its eyes. Individual lightning bolts are made by glowing snakes or serpents. However, often the middle and top of the totem pole were carved by apprentices to the master carver. Totem poles are “read” from the bottom to the top.
Totem poles are carved from mature red or yellow cedar trees after most of the branches are removed. The tree is laid on its side so the carver, a trained Pacific Coast Native American, could reach all parts of the log. Stone tools, most notably the adze, were used to gouge out large sections and form the intricate designs on poles that usually measured more than 50 feet. When the poles were ready to be painted, each color had a specific meaning.
Paint was derived from many natural substances, and due to its expense and difficulty to obtain, there is not usually a lot of paint on the poles. The black color came from charcoal or lignite, and red came from iron ore. Copper oxide made turquoise, and white was derived from clam shells.
The mythical narratives that depict the original people’s story behind each figure expand the meaning of these majestic works of art. If you’d like to see these and learn more on your Alaska cruise, the Totems of Ketchikan excursion surely will inspire you to learn more about the Tlingit tribe and the symbolism they use in totems. The stories you learn at the Native Village from guides will make this cruise excursion a lasting and fantastic memory for years to come!
View more of Alaska’s great totem poles on our “Lighthouse, Totems & Eagles Cruise” in Ketchikan, where you can see the park from the water and glimpse the area’s tallest totem pole along with Totem Bight clan house totem poles.