After 30 years, Raven Shark pole back in Sitka

The top of the Raven Shark totem pole lies in Totem Hall at Sitka National Historical Park. (Emily Russell/KCAW)

The totem pole is an icon of the Pacific Northwest. The carved art form showcases clan stories and family crests in museums around the world. After more than 30 years in the Anchorage Museum, a century-old pole from Southeast has made it back to Sitka, where curators are prepping a permanent home.

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It’s a little echoey inside Totem Hall at Sitka National Historical Park. That’s because the ceilings are about 30 feet high. Sun is streaming through the windows today, but it’s pretty cold in there.

“The environment in here really mirrors the outside environment,” Kelsey Lutz, Sitka National Historical Park’s museum curator, explained. “We do not have any heat or humidification going on in this part of the facility.”

SNHP’s Chief of Interpretation Angie Richman and Curator Kelsey Lutz . (Emily Russell/KCAW)

Lutz oversees the park’s collection of more than 30 totem poles. Most of them are outside along the park’s trail system. The oldest ones, though, are stored inside Totem Hall.

“They are used to being outside in that wet, cool environment, so this is really perfect for the wood,” Lutz said.

Poles tower over us, so tall you have to crane your neck to see the tops of them. There is one, though, that you actually have to look down to see. Lutz invites me back to take a look.

“Feel free to come back here,” Lutz said.

A couple of bright orange traffic cones work as dividers between the pole and museum patrons. Behind them lies a totem pole separated into two sections.

“The Raven Shark that has come back is the original pole,” Angie Richman explained.

Richman is the Chief of Interpretation at the park. The Raven Shark pole at our feet was carved in Klawock over one hundred years ago. Richman said it was donated to Alaska’s governor at the time.

“So a year after it was donated it went to St. Louis for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the World’s Fair,” Richman said.

It was also shown at the World’s Fair in Oregon in 1905, brought back to Sitka for a few decades and then went back out on the road for the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

“And in 1978, due to the deterioration,” Richman said, “that’s when it was taken off the trail and moved inside.”

And it’s been inside ever since, most recently in the atrium of the Anchorage Museum, where the pole stood on display for thirty years.

Around the time the original was moved inside, a replica of the Raven Shark pole was carved and folded into the forest along Totem Trail.

The replica of the Raven Shark pole was carved by Tommy Jimmie in 1978 and placed along Totem Trail Loop. (Emily Russell/KCAW)

The trail loops around the coastline and sometimes there’s a break in the trees, where the Raven Shark replica pole stands. You can see out on the ocean and it’s just spectacular.

Wet snow is falling and forming puddles on the trail today. Tommy Joseph is a Tlingit wood carver originally from Ketchikan.

“My first opportunity to work with a knife on a piece of wood was in the third grade– 8 years old,” Joseph said.

Since then, Joseph says he’s carved 40 or so full-size totem poles – he stopped counting after 30.

“Totem poles, well they’re a visual tool for telling a story– somebody’s story– about who they are, where they’re from, what they’re all about. Some are grave markers or mortuary memorial poles,” Joseph explained.

Others are commemorative, like the centennial pole Joseph carved for Sitka National Historical Park’s 100th anniversary. But as Joseph says, they all tell stories. The Raven Shark’s is one of two Tlingit clans–the Raven and Shark clans.

Tlingit carver Tommy Joseph with the Centennial Pole he carved for the park’s 100th anniversary. (Emily Russell/KCAW)

Since its carving over a century ago, the pole has told that story to onlookers around the country, but curator Kelsey Lutz says this will be it’s final home.

It could be a few months before the pole stands upright in Totem Hall. Until then, Lutz says, they’ll focus on the pole’s presentation.

“Well hopefully we’ll upgrade the traffic cones to something more museum-appropriate,” Lutz said.

Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer.

Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF.

Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about.

Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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