Collecting to Preserve
ALASKA'S Native communities experienced the opening of the Alaska territory as a series of immense changes cutting across all aspects of life. The primary mechanisms of these changes were the missionary movement, the disruption of subsistence, economic and settlement patterns, and the introduction of alcohol and disease. Many of the territory's new residents and visitors recorded their impressions of these impacts, including the fact that some villages appeared deserted, leaving houses, graveyards and cultural objects vulnerable to destruction by vandalism and the elements Perhaps fueled by the perception that Native culture soared. Residents, government officials, museum curators, merchants, and tourists all placed a premium on authentic Native artifacts.
The pursuit of Native cultural material was a significant part of the early Alaskan tourist experience. In Sitka, evidence of the commercial value of "curios," a term used to describe a wide range of Native art, crafts and artifacts, could be seen throughout the town, in the shops and on the street where Natives gathered to sell artifacts, jewelry and other handmade items. Some of the most favored items were Tlingit basketry, etched silver jewelry, and all types of carving, especially miniature totem poles.
In Sitka, the curio market was a recognized part of the local economy. Reflecting on the 1889 visitor season, The Alaskan acknowledged that ..... no visitor leaves these shores without carrying with him some memento of this land full of superb scenery and stocked with relics of barbaric days and historic times." 
Curios could be purchased from one end of Sitka to the other. Native vendors sold items in the village, at the wharf, and at several accustomed gathering places along the main street. Curios could also be bought in most of the main street shops that catered to the tourist trade. At the Sheldon Jackson Museum, authentic as well as "facsimile" objects were available in a range of prices. Three dollars, for example, would buy a pair of genuine carved silver bracelets or a decorative whalebone box and the museum would mail purchases home.  Near the park entrance, several of the residents of the Mission Cottage settlement built small structures for selling handmade items, such as moccasins and jewelry.
As in any collectors' market, the strength and desires of the market influenced price and selection. Relatively early in the Alaskan tourist trade, collectors began to comment on what they viewed as a reduction in quality and increase in price. Savvy sellers were aware of the concern and assured buyers of quality and authenticity. As early as 1885 there were rumors that not all of the Native work was genuine.  Although some in Sitka challenged that perception, skepticism remained. An especially cynical reference appears in an 1891 poem: "...Forth she goes to bleed the tourists, who land every steamer day, Sells them curios made in 'Frisco, and makes them dearly pay." 
Although the Native and non-Native merchants who sold curios must have welcomed the profits that high demand brought, this popularity also resulted in theft. At the large end of the size spectrum were entire totem poles removed from unoccupied southeast villages. The Harriman Expedition's raid on Cape Fox village is one example, documented by trophy-like photographs and a song called "The Taking of the Totems."  In some villages, Native houses were boarded up when residents were seasonally absent with signs instructing unwanted visitors to stay out.  Objects such as Chilkat robes, rattles, and even bones were so commonly removed from grave houses and burial monuments that it was impacting traditional burial practices; these items no longer could be left in the open.  To be fair, Native artifacts were not the only things to fall victim to "tourist acquisitiveness." A sample of other items to turn up missing in Sitka include the collection baskets at the Tlingit Presbyterian Church, flowers from graves in the Russian Cemetery, and the Russian-era hardware from the newspaper editor's door. 
A different aspect of the fascination with curio collecting were the professional collectors competing to acquire and preserve an ethnographic record of northwest coast culture for posterity. Sitka was home to some of the best known of the northwest's early collectors. In the late 1880s, from his two-story house overlooking the harbor, Navy Lieutenant George Thornton Emmons was just beginning his famous monograph on the Tlingit. His research was based on his own observations and on a spectacular collection of artifacts that eventually was sold to the American Museum of Natural History. Emmons was a friend to the family of Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit man who would one day live in the mission model cottages near the park entrance. Shotridge became known as a collector, of both artifacts and information, for the University of Pennsylvania Museum beginning in the early 1900s. 
Just around the corner from the park entrance, Sheldon Jackson's clapboard museum was filled with Native artifacts. By 1897 the collection had grown so large that a remarkable new fireproof museum, still attracting visitors today, was under construction on the mission property.  In 1887, an organization of museum supporters formed the Society of Alaskan Natural History and Ethnology. The society, which was devoted to collecting and preserving the territory's natural and cultural history, provided a number of Sitka's citizens with an outlet for their interest in collecting. One member was John Green Brady, Alaska's territorial governor from 1897 to 1906. Through Brady, the turn of the century urge to collect and preserve would become permanently entwined in the history of Sitka's Indian River Park. 
Although Brady's involvement with collecting is usually linked to his role in planning and carrying out the St. Louis Exposition exhibit, his interest began much earlier. In his days as a Sitka merchant he both collected and sold curios. He developed a concern for the effect that cultural change was having on the disappearing material culture of the region. Aware that poles were being vandalized by tourists and rotting in declining villages like Old Kasaan, Brady conceived the idea of collecting a number of poles and bringing them to a central place, a park in Sitka, where people could view them.
His idea was set into motion in 1901 with a single totem pole, a house, a canoe and four house posts, given to Brady by Chief Saanaheit of Old Kasaan. Brady's plan was to reconstruct the house and display the canoe inside it. The house was never completed but the other objects were transported to Sitka where the pole and houseposts were erected in the park near the point. Although a canoe was displayed with the pole and houseposts, it is not certain that it was Saanaheit 's canoe. 
There is no question that Chief Saanaheit gave the objects willingly. In response to Brady's request for cultural objects, he dictated a letter to Governor Brady, through a crewman on the Rush, clearly stating his intent and expectations.
When Brady, in 1901, assumed the task of overseeing the exhibit for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, he envisioned a display of towering Alaskan totem poles to be the one feature that was sure to draw crowds of potential Alaskan visitors. Over the next two years, assisted by the crew of the revenue cutter Rush, Brady toured southern southeast Alaska's Tlingit and Haida villages, seeking poles for the exposition. 
Support for Brady's interests, especially with respect to how to portray Alaska to the world, was not universal. There were those who felt that the totem poles gave too much attention to Alaska's Native culture. The focus should be on progress and civilization.
Brady saw his fifteen poles delivered and installed at St. Louis in 1904 and was pleased with their reception. At the close of the exposition, most of the poles were transported to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland for another exhibit there in 1905. Two long, decorated cedar house planks and two totem poles, deemed too deteriorated for the trip to Portland, were sold.
One of the poles wound up in the Milwaukee Public Museum, the other in an Indianapolis neighborhood. Demonstrating his perception that an obligation had been incurred by accepting the poles, Brady requested that he be allowed to use $75 of the money to buy gifts to thank the pole's Native donors. His request was refused on the grounds that the expenditure could not be allowed under existing law and treasury regulations. 
Finally, the poles were returned to Sitka to be installed along park trails in 1906. Once home, Brady gave local art photographer Elbridge Warren Merrill and a crew of Native carvers  the job of overseeing the repair and installation of the poles at the park. As the years passed, the community watched the poles continue to deteriorate. Caretakers tried many approaches to keep the aging collection of original poles standing, but treatment of deteriorating surfaces resulted in a cumulative alteration of subtle design features. Rotted wood was repeatedly carved away and patched with metal, wood and fabric. Paint and preservatives were applied to surfaces. Different types of mounts were tried, and some inadvertently hastened deterioration. In spite of these efforts, it became apparent that there was a limit to the length of time that unprotected wood could exist in southeast Alaska.
In the late 1930s, a new era of totem pole preservation began with a restoration project that was led by the U.S. Forest Service and implemented by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). A crew of Native carvers patched and/or painted most of the poles, and four were so deteriorated that they were completely recarved.  Interestingly, once the original poles were replaced they lost their associated display value. They were set aside in the woods, and although there were discussions of the need to protect them from the elements, no serious efforts were made. At one point it was even suggested that the most decayed of the original poles should be destroyed. Instead, some were loaned to the Naval Air Station on Japonski Island and even passed into private hands for a period of time. New interpretive exhibits being planned at the park will include a display of one of the original poles, once again a valued artifact.
The CCC-era poles have remained in place at the park, with periodic maintenance. In 1993, as they reached a half-century in age, the National Park Service undertook another intensive restoration program. Conservators from the Harper's Ferry Center and the park applied a new generation of research and preservation techniques to the project.
The year 2002 will mark the 100th anniversary of the placement of the first totem pole in Sitka's Indian River Park. As a collection, the poles may be most remarkable for the range of cultural values that have been applied to them over the years. Without question, the display of these Haida and Tlingit cultural monuments so clearly outside their intended cultural contexts seems contradictory. Outside of Alaska, totem poles are a recognized symbol of Alaska Native culture and yet the poles collected by Brady had no cultural connection to local clans or the Indian River. Even the effort devoted to the collection's preservation is ironic when compared to the typical way of dealing with aging poles in traditional times: as an old pole decayed, another would be planned, carved and raised. In the process, it was clan relationships and cultural practices that were being preserved, not wood. But just as the original poles donors witnessed 100 years ago, times and contexts change. Today, much of the interest in preserving totem poles is being generated by Native organizations and cultural centers.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the collection is that for almost 100 years, it has fulfilled its stated purpose. Just as the original donors intended, the preservation and display of totem poles in Sitka National Historical Park has provided a lasting memorial to their wealth, generosity and cultural heritage. And, just as Governor Brady intended when he began his efforts to bring totem poles to the park, the poles are powerful symbols that continue to generate attention and tourism for Alaska and provide a tangible link to the past.
Last Updated: 20-Feb-2012