‘This is more than art’: Juneau’s waterfront totem poles get new descriptive signs

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Two kootéeyaa on Juneau’s waterfront on Oct. 4, 2023. (Photo by Yvonne Krumrey/KTOO)

On a quiet October day, with no cruise ships in port, Noah Boos stood looking at a sign right next to a kootéeyaa, or totem pole, on Juneau’s waterfront. The sign breaks down what each of the carved figures are — a bear with curved teeth and large formline eyes, an eagle with a face painted in red on its back, a killer whale with a fish in its mouth — and at the top, a Kaagwaantaan clan member.

“I love these signs,” he said. “(They) tell you a little bit about what the totems are all about.”

Boos said he’s been to Juneau before, but not since the kootéeyaa sprang up. He said he likes that cruise ship passengers can learn so much after getting off their boats. 

“First thing you’d see pretty much would be the totems and the signs,” he said.

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Noah Boos looking at new signage for kootéeyaa on Juneau’s waterfront. October 4, 2023. Photo by Yvonne Krumrey/KTOO

This spring, Sealaska Heritage Institute installed 12 kootéeyaa along Juneau’s waterfront. They were carved by Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian artists from clans across the region. 

The organization put up storyboards in late September to educate visitors and protect the poles from mistreatment. 

“These are objects that are sacred for Lingít people,” said SHI’s Ricardo Worl. “And we hope that the storyboards will help people learn more about our history and how sacred these kootéeyaa are for us.”

Each storyboard has a diagram of the pole, with a breakdown of what each symbol is and the story the kootéeyaa tells. It also lists the artist, their clan and clan stories.

Early in the cruise season, pictures surfaced of tourists putting children in the large, brass hands of the Shangukeidí Kootéeyaa. Community members were frustrated with these and other examples of people mistreating and touching the poles.

Worl said SHI discussed erecting barriers to stop it, but decided not to. 

“We thought about that, putting verbiage on the storyboards: ‘Please don’t touch, these are sacred objects.’ But the more we thought about it, the more we believe that everyone in this community has a responsibility to educate our visitors,” he said. 

Worl said mistreatment of the kootéeyaa likely stems from a lack of understanding about what they mean to Alaska Native people. He said he wants non-Native residents and those in the tourism industry to speak up when people act inappropriately with the kootéeyaa. 

“For our visitors, this is an excellent opportunity to learn that this is more than art,” he said. 

The 12 poles are part of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí, or Totem Pole Trail. Eventually, SHI plans to install 30 poles total along the docks, many representing clans. 

The kootéeyaa will give Indigenous people keys to understanding their identities and their ancestors, he said. 

“They tell our history. They tell clan stories. They make connections from our ancestors to our current generations,” Worl said. “Our grandchildren will now be able to come and view the Kootéeyaa and confirm their identity to their ancestors and to their crests.”

Worl said SHI has the funding to commission one more kootéeyaa and is seeking funding for 17 more.

KTOOis our partner public media station in Juneau. Alaska Public Media collaborates with partners statewide to cover Alaska news.

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