Alaska Region: Indian River Park, Sitka National Historical Park

Colorful watercolor of a trail through a forest with totem poles.
Totem Walk at Sitka

By Emily Carr, Courtesy of Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (1994.055.004)

Quick Facts

1804 - 2004 Ethnic Heritage, Landscape Architecture, Recreation
1867 Sale of Russian America (Alaska) to the United States
Heritage on Display
Four men, wrapped in blankets, sit on either side of a totem pole.
Totems have served as focal points for personal portraits and social events throughout the park’s history.

Photography by E.W. Merrill, NPS/SITK3765

By the end of the 19th century, the public park movement was impacting the use of public space in towns around the country. Sitka National Historical Park was designated the first federal park in the Territory of Alaska by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, commemorating the significance of the 1804 battle between the Kiks.ádi Tlingit and Russian colonists.

The park is also widely-known for its iconic Totem Walk which tells the stories and legends of a series of totem poles along the Totem Loop Trail. The totem poles appear so solidly rooted in place it is hard to imagine a time when they were not part of the landscape.

The totem poles were originally collected by Alaska Governor John Brady from around southeast Alaska to showcase Alaska's cultural heritage at the Saint Louis World's Fair in 1904 and the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon in 1905. Brady believed including totem poles would help attract interest to discover the materials, agricultural products, and unique characteristics that defined the new territory.

When the totem poles returned to Alaska in 1906, they were repaired by local craftsman and then arranged in a "Totem Walk" along Sitka Sound to enhance the visitor experience. Over time, the totem poles have been re-carved when they deteriorated, both during the Civilian Conservation Corps period (1933-1940) and on a routine basis since then. Collectively, they represent the continuity and vitality of southeast Alaska native culture and the public park movement.
A black and white photo of "Lover's Lane," where totem poles line a forest walk.
The Totem Walk, seen here in 1937, was also known as "Lover's Lane."

NPS/Sitka National Historical Park

Emily Carr

Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945) visited the park in 1907 where she was inspired to paint Totem Walk at Sitka. As many visitors have found, it is difficult to experience Totem Walk without the landscape leaving a lasting impression. It was here at Sitka that she decided to document the totem poles and Native villages in Canada through her work.

Carr later went on to be one of Canada's first painters to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist style that was inspired by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Her dual interest to paint in expressive style and also to document the landscape in accurate detail is evident across her works, introducing themes of authenticity and perspective to her portrayal of landscapes significant to indigenous peoples.

A white line on an aerial image shoes the cultural landscape boundary.
The white boundary line shows Indian River Park at Sitka National Historical Park, encompassing about 64 acres.

NPS 2004

Interested in experiencing the Totem Walk?

Visit the park website to plan your own visit to Sitka National Historical Park.

Last updated: January 12, 2018