A Chilkoot totem pole is coming home after 50 years as airline property

a totem pole
A 14-foot totem pole carved by Chilkoot artists is headed from the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta, Ga. to Haines. (Courtesy Delta Flight Museum)

A totem pole carved over half a century ago by Chilkoot artists is coming home. It has started on a cross-country trip and will arrive in the Chilkat Valley in the near future, after spending decades in Delta Air Lines’ museum.

Work on the totem pole was documented in an old black-and-white photo. It shows a group of carvers hunched over the pole, apparently putting the finishing touches on a large face. A sign reads “Chilkoot Indian Carvers,” and the picture is dated March 1969. 

Chilkoot Indian Association Tribal Administrator Harriet Brouillette said this week that she recognizes the carvers in the picture.

“I see Wes Willard in the photo, and John Hagen, and Carl Heinmiller,” Brouillette said.

Delta sent Brouillette the photo, when the company contacted her about the totem pole last summer.

“They said that they had a pole that was made by AIA,” Brouillette said.

According to Brouillette, AIA refers to Haines nonprofit Alaska Indian Arts.

“They believe in the ’60s, the pole was built in California during a tourism conference,” she said. “And the pole has been sitting in a warehouse in Georgia.”   

The pole has been at the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta, Ga. Museum staff contacted Brouillette wanting to return the pole.

On the museum’s website, exhibits director Nina Thomas wrote that museum staff felt the pole was out of place in an aeronautics museum, and should be interpreted by a “cultural institution with expertise in Western indigenous people’s history.”

Museum staff told Brouillette they would ship the totem pole to Haines, where she said the association now has a home for it at Haines’ Fort Seward.

“And this couldn’t have happened at a better time, because we had just received the parade ground back with the tribal house,” she said.

The association has also recently received National Park Service funds to rebuild the tribal house on the parade ground, which has been decaying for years. Brouillette said it will be a great place to display the pole.

The pole is 14 feet tall. Two faces are carved at the bottom, and a beaver sits on top of them.

Lee Heinmiller, the director of Alaska Indian Arts, has some insights into how Delta ended up with the pole. In his youth, Heinmiller was part of the Chilkat Dancers, a traditional dance troupe. They would travel far and wide to showcase ‘Lingit culture.

a totem pole
A photo of the pole being carved in March 1969. It was erected in honor of Delta predecessor Western Airlines’ first 40-year employee. (Courtesy Delta Flight Museum)

“When we used to travel with the dancers and the carvers, we used to take a pole that was partly finished to the World’s Fair, or to trade and travel shows, and dance and carve on the pole and finish it there,” Heinmiller said. “And then the airline would end up keeping the pole for providing us with the transportation.”

According to the Delta museum’s website, the pole was a gift to Western Airlines. It sat in front of Western’s headquarters in Los Angeles until 1987, when the airline merged with Delta. Delta then shipped the pole to its museum.

In photos, the pole appears well preserved. The red paint seems faded. Heinmiller said it has probably been repainted.

“It’s got some green on it, that looks way more forest green than the blue-green that we would use normally,” Heinmiller said. “So I’m guessing somewhere along the line, over 30 or 40 years someone must have repainted it, or at least they repainted the blue, because the blue is the color that fades out the fastest.”

a totem pole
A photo of the pole’s base at the Delta museum. (Courtesy Delta Flight Museum)

Brouillette said she has been making arrangements with the Atlanta museum to ship the totem pole. 

“Once we settled on transportation and crating, we picked a date,” she said. “And the pole was packed up yesterday, and is now on its way.”

The pole is currently on a truck to Seattle, from there it will travel by barge to Haines. Because it is relatively short, Brouillette said it will fit well in the tribal house once it is renovated.

Heinmiller said there are other poles like the one headed to Haines around the country, with a similar history.

“I know there’s a couple of smaller ones, and the big one that we did that Alaska Airlines kept — I’m not sure where that one is,” he said. “In the last couple of years a couple of poles we’ve done over the years have resurfaced in somebody’s possession and they’ve written to us and said, ‘When was this done? So-and-so bought it in the early ‘70s.’ So I end up going back through the files and trying to trace that.”

According to Heinmiller, materials on hand in Haines can show when a pole was carved.

“We have pictures of most of that stuff, and details on who worked on them,” he said. “They are all labeled but it’s kind of a huge pile to go through for 50 years’ worth of boxes.”

Brouillette said structural work on the tribal house should be completed by the end of next summer. After that, replacing its carvings should take another year or two.

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