CRM Journal

Book Review

The Most Striking of Objects: The Totem Poles of Sitka National Historical Park

By Andrew Patrick. Anchorage, AK: National Park Service and Sitka National Historical Park, 2002; 194 pp., illustrations, notes, bibliography; paper, free of charge.


The Most Striking of Objects cover

In The Most Striking of Objects: The Totem Poles of Sitka National Historical Park, Andrew Patrick describes a preservation conundrum that has lasted more than a century. Totem poles of southeastern Alaska constitute a unique cultural expression, yet carved, wooden, earth-fast objects have a limited lifespan. How, then, to preserve such important artifacts? Is carving a replication an acceptable form of preservation? Patrick discusses this and other alternatives in his history of a well-traveled collection of totem poles.

In 1901, Alaska District Governor John G. Brady collected more than a dozen totem poles and shipped them to St. Louis for exhibition at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Brady, a former Presbyterian missionary who had been instrumental in encouraging the Americanization of Indians, used their now-abandoned heritage as an advertisement for Alaska. His concern for Alaska Natives' welfare was apparently genuine, and the poles' owners willingly gave them to him for display. Brady promised that after their display he would erect the totem poles in Sitka, then the capital of the district.

In Sitka, the poles were artistically but nontraditionally placed on a winding path along the shore, on land with both Tlingit and Russian associations. The Tlingit in Sitka, however, had not traditionally constructed freestanding totem poles, which had been the work of Tlingit and Kaigani Haida Indians who lived farther south. The Federal Government designated Sitka National Monument in 1910 but gave it little or no funding, and for three decades the poles languished, deteriorating. New Deal-era employment programs hired Alaska Native carvers who began repairing and replicating the poles, igniting the controversy over their proper treatment.

The New Deal projects during 1939-40, supervised by the U. S. Forest Service, included both restoring—by the removal of decayed portions and insertion of replacement pieces—and recarving. This produced an entirely new but identical pole, which Patrick argues is a method of preserving the images while sacrificing the actual wood. In 1940, the first new pole, commemorating the history of Sitka, was carved, although not placed in the park because it was seen as inappropriate. In the late 1960s, the National Park Service consulted stewards of other totem pole collections, undertook a survey, and developed broad preservation outlines. Following designation of Sitka National Historical Park in 1972, a number of preservation methods were attempted, such as chemical preservatives, continued recarving, and new commissioned poles. Patrick is convinced that the National Park Service finally has the solution; he praises current preservation techniques, which include metal caps on the tops and raising the pole a few inches off the ground. No original poles survive outdoors.

The objects' complicated significance clouds the preservation picture. To the Tlingit and Haida, totem poles had multiple functions: to recognize a family, to honor the dead, to refer to a story, to express achievement and status, to commemorate a potlatch, and even to ridicule. The poles consisted of figures, usually animal or human, sometimes fantastical, in a stacked and sometimes interlocking arrangement. Patrick argues that totem poles are not pieces of art; they are closely tied to a specific place, people, story, and/or event. The totem poles at Sitka are removed from all of those connections. Even as long ago as 1940, ethnographer Viola Garfield was unable to trace these poles' histories. Their erection at world's fairs is anomalous, but expected; their erection in a woodland setting is disorienting. Detached from place and family, the poles gain new value as isolated works of art.

Andrew Patrick tells this story well and does not avoid the complications. He devotes one chapter to an explanation of totem poles and another to the broad cultural transformations of southeastern Alaska Natives during the 19th century. He then traces the poles from southeastern Alaska to St. Louis and back to Sitka, from original to repaired to recarved. Patrick includes summaries of academic arguments, such as the controversial concept of "totemism" and the debate over whether totem pole carving predated contact with westerners (he concludes that it did). Footnotes and bibliography add to the value of this work. The book concludes with an appendix that gives specific information about each pole; cross-references to the historic photographs in the chapters would have helped here. It is also not until the appendix that the reader knows just how many poles are in the Sitka park; Patrick leaves this vague because the number fluctuates due to sales, deterioration, and acquisition.

Generally, Patrick's emphasis is on the collection as a whole and he shies away from analysis of individual poles. He hazards no guess as to any pole's connotation, allowing only that the poles have multiple meanings, often deliberately obscure. He does not analyze any of the poles as artifacts, describing their images or considering their workmanship. Ultimately, he fails to capture the poles' majesty, either the power they have as artifacts or their value to us as cultural statements.

The book is well illustrated, with a number of historic photographs that show the poles in their original locations: lining the shore in front of plank houses; in their incongruous settings at world's fairs, including the 1964-65 New York World's Fair; their preservation needs, as recorded during the New Deal; and in the park, with tourists posing beside them. There are also a few color photographs, unfortunately not as sharp as the black-and-whites, that introduce a topic Patrick avoids. The Sitka poles were at times heavily painted in contrasting colors; the historical accuracy of this treatment is not discussed.

The Most Striking of Objects raises a number of intriguing questions which will be of interest to all preservationists. What methods of interpretation and preservation are appropriate for artifacts so dependent on place for meaning? What should be done with deteriorating original poles that have been replaced? Should heroic measures be undertaken to preserve the reconstructions? Should the Sitka poles be interpreted less for the poles themselves, but rather as an inspiration for new carving? These questions, answered differently through the 20th century, have fortunately been recorded and debated by Andrew Patrick.

Alison K. Hoagland
Michigan Technological University