Why is this Tlingit totem pole in the DC suburbs? Alaska Twitter solves one man’s mystery.

man stands by totem pole
Scott Maxwell and the Cabin John totem pole. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Just north of Washington, D.C., in a suburban park, stands a Tlingit totem pole. Scott Maxwell, a Juneau educator, made it his mission to find out why.

Maxwell grew up in Potomac, Md., where he’s now on an extended stay with family. In nearby Cabin John Park, the threads of his personal history are woven around the white oaks and tulip trees.

“I had my fourth birthday in one of these shelters over here,” he said. “There’s a little amphitheater over there where I got my Arrow of Light in Cub Scouts all those years ago.”

Towering over it all, for his entire life, was a totem pole.

“It was just sort of always standing sentinel at the entrance of the playground,” he said. “But it’s funny because this pole has survived at least three or four generations of playground equipment.”

Listen to this story:

The totem pole stands there with no context, on a concrete base. It’s about 15-feet tall. It has a traditional raven at the top with a classic formline eye, and a beaver at the bottom. Traditional colors of teal and ochre are still visible.

“Some parts retain the paint just fine and then you can see where rot is starting to take hold,” he said, tapping on patches made of leather and metal.

The hand-carved pole, with blade marks still visible, made an impression on Maxwell as a kid. He thinks it had something to do with why he eventually moved to Alaska.

The base used to have a plaque. All that’s left of it is some residual glue.

Maxwell posted inquiries on Facebook, on local nostalgia groups. But he says people only wanted to reminisce about other park features. Like a fighter jet that used to be on display, and Porky the Litter Eater.

The latter is basically a talking trash can — a cartoonish pig face on the side of a little hut, with a vacuum-powered mouth.

a big face attached to a little brick hut
Porky the Litter Eater’s history is well documented compared to the Camp Fire totem pole. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The vacuum wasn’t working, but Maxwell pushed the button to start up the motor and heard the same voice he heard as a child: “Hi kids, I’m Porky the Litter Eater and I sure like to eat,” it says. “You can feed me paper and cardboard and soft drink cans … . I’m hungry. Hungry! Hungry!”

Porky’s history is well documented. But Maxwell couldn’t find anyone with information on the totem pole. So he appealed to Alaskans on social media.

“It was really cool that Alaska Twitter moved very quickly, and got me an answer within minutes,” he said. “CeeJay Yellow Hawk is how she’s listed on Twitter — within I think 15 minutes she had the program from the dedication ceremony back in the ’60s. So hats off to you on that one.”

The four-page program revealed the pole was erected in 1966 by the Potomac Area Council of Camp Fire Girls, as the group was then called. 

Maxwell had missed a big clue: carved into the beaver’s tail is the Camp Fire logo. Once you know, you can spy the sponsors’ insignia on the raven, too: It’s holding a blue bird. The junior members of Camp Fire were called Blue Birds.

The program also revealed the totem pole was carved in Haines.

The clue was there all along. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

As soon as that information was posted, another Twitter user said she was sitting with one of the carvers, her father-in-law, John Hagen.

Hagen said he worked on the Camp Fire pole when he was about 18, with master carver Leo Jacobs. He saw it as a chance to get paid while he learned to carve. And he didn’t mind carving non-traditional symbols. Hagen says people commissioned what they wanted. He worked on one that went to a beekeeper in California. Another went to the actor James Earl Jones.

The carver’s son, also named John Hagen, says he loves knowing his father’s work is appreciated thousands of miles away.

“For me it’s amazing to see it disseminated widely,” the younger Hagen said. “But I know there’s a lot more cultural baggage to that.”

Commissions like the Camp Fire pole helped keep the carving tradition alive, he said, though he thinks there may have been times when it was easier to get a totem pole out of Haines than to show it locally. 

For Scott Maxwell, it was a relief to hear that the totem pole he loved as a child was “the real deal” — carved in Alaska, by Tlingit carvers, and obtained properly.

The other revelation was that the totem pole and his campy neighbor, Porky the Litter Eater, were both installed in 1966, just yards from each other. It underscores just how random the placement of a Tlingit totem pole was in this suburban spot.

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleSoutheast Alaska’s upcoming tanner crab fishery could be the best in decades
Next articleMurkowski campaign has more than 6 times the cash as rival Tshibaka
Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.