A totem pole that spent more than 100 years far from home has returned to the Haida village of Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island. It’s the first time any clan property has been repatriated to the village of about 30 residents.
The Yáadaas pole is massive. It’s too old to stand now, having been carved in the 1880s, but when it did, it stood 52 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It even has a steel core, and had to be barged up on a flatbed truck because it was too big for a box.
Mike Jones is the president of Kasaan’s tribe. He said the village turned out on Nov. 5 to see the first piece of clan property to come back to Kasaan.
“I feel like the pole (has) been displaced for a long time and (it was) wanting to come home and had to have some kind of recognition,” Jones said.
The last few years have seen similar efforts around the state, from bringing objects home to Wrangell to long-gone loved ones back to Kodiak.
Jones explained it’s a symbol of pride for the people of Kasaan, a Haida village on the eastern shore of Prince of Wales Island.
“We are the original totem pole people,” Jones said. “We’re the first. Totem pole carving for us goes back to mythical times. We are the only culture in the entire world to have monumental sculpture in front of every single house. Nobody else did that — none of our neighbors did that. So it really became a symbol of bringing our culture back.”
The Yáadaas pole spent more than 100 years away from the village. Jones said it left with then-chief Saanaheit (Wilson Peele), who was taking the pole down to California for the 1906 Indian Crafts Exhibition in Redondo.
Jones noted that he also took a dismantled house and other poles with him.
“And he actually took 200 tons altogether, including the house, the poles, and other paraphernalia — rattles and masks and things like this,” Jones said.
The pole was split into two pieces for the journey. After the show, it moved into a private collection. In 1951, the pole was found in a lumber yard, waiting to be made into pulp.
The pole was then placed in the courtyard of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center until 2006, when it became too old to stand up and was put into storage. Jones said the pole was filled with cement and steel in an attempt to make it sturdier for display, and it was struck by lightning.
Then, in 2010, Jones said the idea of bringing it home started to reach Kasaan — where more than 100 years ago, it fronted the house of the chief.
“The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center reached out to the Organized Village of Kasaan in 2010, expressing that they wanted to repatriate the pole,” he explained. “And at that time, we did not have our café or the carving shed. And there was some concern as to where to put it. And the main thing was the funding was not available at the time. So it stayed in storage.”
But when Jones took his job as tribe president in 2019, it also sparked his desire to dive deeper into his Haida culture. And he started thinking about the pole again. It was then that he got an email from Richard Rinehart, the CEO of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s business center, who also wanted to make the repatriation happen.
“I first started going through this reawakening of our culture — because we went through what we call ‘the silent years,’” he said. “There’s been a cultural genocide through the boarding schools, and things like that, so a lot of us, my generation — I mean, I’m in my 50s — we didn’t grow up really knowing who we were and our history and our culture and stuff.”
Sealaska Heritage Institute helped pay for the repatriation, along with more help Tlingit and Haida.
Jones said that’s an important gesture.
“It’ll affect the way that I carry myself because I know that my village is important and it was shown that we matter,” he said. “We’re such a small tribe here, and Sealaska really stepped up to help us and bring our history back.”
It’s not just Kasaan that’s benefitting from the repatriation. Jones said he’s heard from Haida people in Haida Gwaii who admire the pole.
“And that’s the ripple effect of touching people from so far away,” he said.
Jones said the pole was placed on a site where the tribe hopes to one day build a cultural center.
“Metaphorically, we have something really solid to build on and work towards more repatriation,” Jones said.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.