A Tlingit totem pole has returned to Prince of Wales Island after a more than 5,000-mile odyssey to Hollywood, Honolulu and back home.
If this story was a Hollywood thriller, Steve Langdon would be the detective in a trenchcoat and fedora. In reality, Langdon is an anthropologist noted for his work with the Tlingit people. But, the story does have some mystery and big-name actors. Langdon’s first hint that something was amiss came from a visit to Ketchikan’s Tongass Historical Museum.
“One time I was just going through photos,” Langdon said. “There was just a notebook and I was turning the pages in the notebook and I turned the page and the picture was, standing there was Vincent Price by this big tall totem pole and there was cactus around it and my mind said ‘Hmmm, how did that happen?”
At the bottom of the picture, it said “Pole from Tuxican.” Langdon was familiar with Tuxican, a now-unoccupied Tlingit village north of present day Klawock. He compared the pole to his collection of pictures from Tuxican and it was a clear match, but he wasn’t sure how it got to a famous actor’s backyard or where it ended up.
Meanwhile, a friend was working on tracking down a different pole stolen near Glacier Bay and was looking through the diary from white homesteaders in the area. “And he found reference to this actor, John Barrymore, coming up there and I think he said in their diary it said he had a pole on his boat.”
It wasn’t until looking at Barrymore’s family travel album that Langdon knew for sure Barrymore had taken the Tuxican pole during a 1931 Alaska trip aboard his 120-foot yacht.
“There is a picture that shows his crew ashore with their ropes around the pole.” Langdon said. “You can clearly see the pole; you can see the crewmen in their little white sailor hats.”
Barrymore’s crew cut the pole in three pieces for transport. When Langdon first saw the pole in person at the Honolulu Museum of Art, he saw what other modifications Barrymore made.
“He put a kind of a metal beam up the back of it so it was kind of carved out, the back part of it. Then he ran a hose or some kind of waterline to the top of the pole and he turned it into a fountain. For a period of time, it was a fountain in his garden in Hollywood,” Langdon said.
“We had never hidden the fact that we had the totem pole, but we are not a huge museum,” Director of Communications at the museum, Lesa Griffith said. “In fact it had been on view here at the museum in the 1980s after we had received it as a donation.”
The totem pole was a donated in 1981 by Vincent Price’s ex-wife, Mary, after their divorce and the museum valued it at $90,000. The Prices had bought the pole from Barrymore’s estate for $1,500 and also displayed it in their garden to aid in what she described as a happy luncheon atmosphere.
However, the pole has a much deeper significance to the Tlingit people. The mortuary pole held the ashes and bones of a high ranking clan member until Barrymore’s wife discovered them, and where they ended up is another mystery.
“It became clear that this was a sacred object of cultural patrimony. Our director immediately decided yes the totem pole should be returned to Alaska.”
In 2013, the museum began the long process to repatriate the pole under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. In October of this year, before it was packed for shipment, Klawock tribal member and master carver Jonathan Rowan flew to Hawaii where he saw the pole in person for the first time and performed a ceremony.
“Repatriation is a new thing for the peoples. Everybody’s probably got their own ideas on how things should be done. When you get down to it we were just welcoming it home.
Steve Langdon said, “It’s just really important to the people of Klawock to have these things come back. These are beings. The pole has a name and has a spirit so in that sense it is a returned being to them.”
The mortuary pole is the second item from Tuxican recently returned to Klawock. In 2012, The National Museum of the American Indian shipped 80 planks of a 40-foot wide painting on a traditional clan house, which was taken around the same time as the pole.
Carver Jon Rowan hopes to one day recreate the storied pole and have it displayed in Klawock.