Controversial Totem Pole Returns to Sitka Square

The totem pole that gives Sitka’s Totem Square its name is once again standing.

The pole was removed last year while state workers rebuilt a seawall and changed landscaping to the greenspace across from the Sitka Pioneer Home. The totem pole underwent restoration and was put back in place during a small ceremony Monday afternoon.

A crowd gathered along the edges of a snow-covered Totem Square. Among the onlookers were school children, various government officials, and Native elders. Among them, Fred Hope, who wore a white hardhat and looked up as the 40-foot pole was moved into place by a crane.

He says he got lots of questions from visitors wondering why the totem pole in all their brochures wasn’t there.

“They wanted to see that pole. They thought it was very important,” he said. “And I said, well, it’ll be back here again eventually, but right now it’s being repaired. They felt so disappointed because they had missed it.”

The pole might not be as iconic to Sitka as its onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral, or its cable-stayed bridge, but since the 1940s, it’s been on the map, and one of the town’s main sights.

It’s also been the source of some controversy. Designed by George Benson in the early 1940s, the pole was actually carved in Wrangell by workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps. That caused some hard feelings among locals. And then there’s the design.

Atop the pole is a depiction of Alexander Baranov. The original design, many say, called for Baranov to be wearing clothes, but when the pole came back from Wrangell, many thought he appeared to be naked, and that the pole was an attempt to embarrass the former governor of Russian Alaska.

“The story’s about him, from the bottom up … Alexander Baranov, for enslaving and torturing my people,” said Duck Didrickson. “This was the end of it. This was to remind my people that the Russians aren’t here, us Tlingits still are. That’s why this was carved in 42.”

Others, though, see it slightly differently.

“Well, I do try to stay out of these things, but I have seen the original drawing, and it doesn’t look like it’s a disrespectful thing at all,” said Tommy Joseph, a master carver who just completed a restoration of the pole. He says the original plans look pretty good, but that the carvers in Wrangell, all those years ago, might have taken a few liberties and made some changes along the way. Changes that led to misinterpretation when it returned to Sitka.

“It came back more or less as a ridicule pole, and that wasn’t the intent. But that’s what it looked like,” he said. “It looked like Baranov, the figure on top, was standing there naked instead of being clothed as in George Benson’s drawing originally.”

Bob Medinger, with the Sitka Historical Society, says when the pole was originally put up, it fostered a lot of anger. Some people threatened to deface it, and there were inquiries into whether the Forest Service should have commissioned it in the first place.

The controversy appears to have calmed some in the 70 years since the pole went up – most at the raising on Monday said they regard it as a piece of history, for better or for worse.

Tlingit elder Nels Lawson says there are lots of different feelings.

“I suppose it depends on who you talk to. I don’t harbor any anger over it,” he said. “I like the original concept of the people of Sitka. That’s what I want to remember for my children and my grandchildren, not the controversy.”

Lawson is from the Kaagwaantaan clan. He says it’s important to know history, to learn from it, to value it, but also to look to the future.

“Choose your direction based on how you choose to interpret history,” Lawson said. “It could be a positive direction or it could be a negative direction. I choose to be positive.”

Tommy Joseph, the artist who restored the pole, says he learned a lot in the process – researching, for example, the knight slaying a dragon depicted about a third of the way up. St. George, apparently. He also spent time undoing the earlier restoration efforts, which artists today know to be harmful to the wood, despite being well-intentioned when they were done.

Regardless, he says getting to work on a piece of history was an honor.

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Ed Ronco is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.