Ketchikan residents protest imitation totem poles carved by convicted murderer

Demonstrators listen as Willard Jackson shares a story and song at a May 5 protest. (Michael Fanelli/KRBD)

Several dozen people gathered in the rain last week across the street from a coned-off Ketchikan property. They held signs saying “No Fake Totem Poles” and “Protect Indigenous Artists.” They faced a small construction vehicle sitting atop a pile of rubble spilling onto two carved, wooden poles.

Leaders from a number of Native groups turned out for the May 5 protest, including Rob Sanderson, 3rd Vice President of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

“The bottom line is that our people have come too far, too long to get to where we’re at,” Sanderson said to the crowd, gesturing over to the poles lying on the ground. “When I look at these poles, that’s a slap to the face of our local artists here in Ketchikan and abroad.” 

At first glance, the poles resemble the art forms carved by Northwest Coast Indigenous artists for thousands of years. But in an interview with the Ketchikan Daily News, owner Joseph Machini said that he bought the poles in 2008 from a man named Carl Muggli. An archived version of Muggli’s now-defunct business website explained that he and his wife sold “Northwest Coast Native inspired art,” and included a disclaimer that their poles were not carved by “any Native American tribes.”

In a bizarre twist, Muggli was later charged with murdering his wife with one of the 700-pound poles they crafted together. He eventually pleaded guilty in 2013 to second-degree unintentional murder.

Machini acknowledged that unfortunate history to the Daily News, and explained that he had sought poles from out-of-state suppliers because he wanted something done quickly, and “the Indians here were very busy.”

Machini plans to build five small kiosk shops on the narrow hillside property, where vendors will sell local arts and crafts. In a digital rendering shared with the Daily News, the imitation poles can be seen adorning the planned “Potlatch Market.”

Demonstrators at the Sunday, May 5 protest. (Michael Fanelli/KRBD)

Back at the protest, Willard Jackson, a Teiḵweidí Brown Bear spiritual leader, shared a story about respect before leading a song.

“This man doesn’t got any respect! Doesn’t have any at all,” Jackson said, referring to Machini. “It’s time we stand up and move forward as Native people! This is our land. It lives in our heart!” 

Machini’s property sits directly across from one of Ketchikan’s cruise ship docks, and a number of disembarking tourists stopped to watch the protest. Ketchikan Indian Community President Norm Skan said that demonstration was just the beginning.

“Because really, as I always say, somebody from Iowa getting off one of these cruise ships is not going to know the difference,” Skan said. “But we know.”

Skan said he appreciates the business idea of creating spaces to sell local goods, but the imported poles are a different story.

“We don’t want these fake poles here made by a non-native person in Minnesota brought to our community and put up in Tlingit land,” Skan said. “And I’m surprised that our local politicians would put up with that, it just don’t make sense to me.”

a cruise ship
Demonstrators gather as passengers come and go from the Ruby Princess cruise ship behind them. (Michael Fanelli/KRBD)

In fact, one local politician did raise the issue at a Ketchikan City Council meeting days before the protest. Vice-Mayor Janalee Gage addressed her fellow council members during the citizen comment section.

“If we allow these poles to be raised, we will be no better than the individual who thought bringing those poles here that were carved by a non-native from Minnesota was okay,” Gage said. “This is appropriation at its finest.”

Gage cited the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which prohibits the sale of products that are falsely marketed as being produced by Native artists.

“The owner may not be selling these poles, but he is selling an idea to those unsuspecting visitors, and our locals, that get off the ships,” Gage said. “They will think these are real, Native art.”

Gage requested a future agenda item to discuss what can be done. 

City Manager Delilah Walsh has been looking into what potential regulation might look like to share with the Council. In a phone interview, she said the city works closely with Native organizations to promote authentic Alaska Native art. 

“And we very much want to not only preserve, but to support not only that historic aspect of our local culture, but to respect what those items reflect,” Walsh said.

Walsh said that was the purpose behind the creation of the Totem Heritage Center, and its Native Art Studies program. 

“It’s absolutely not acceptable for culturally appropriated poles to be surrounded with debris and treated as such,” Walsh said.

When it comes to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act though, Walsh said the law is really only aimed at fake items that are displayed for sale, whereas the Minnesotan poles are simply decorative.

a demonstrator
A man poses in front of one of the imitation totem poles, holding a sign saying “I’m a totem pole carver, and that’s embarrassing.” (Michael Fanelli/KRBD)

Some residents are also concerned that the property owner has been drilling into the hillside to make room for the kiosk buildings. A busy, one-lane tunnel runs through that same hillside, and critics say the excavation endangers both the tunnel and the homes directly above it.

Walsh said Machini’s original building permit did not include permission to excavate, but once he was granted that, he obtained the services of an engineering firm which has been monitoring for seismic activity from the drilling. Walsh said thus far, the operation is structurally sound.

As far as what city management can do to intervene, Walsh said their authority is limited to building codes. 

The city actually filed a lawsuit against Machini in 2015 for failing to remove the burned down structure of a building he owned on the same tunnel-adjacent property. But Walsh said that didn’t come into play when approving his current building permit.

“Simply because, building code does not talk about prior performance,” Walsh said. “So code doesn’t say ‘if you had a bad relationship or interaction with the city in the past.’ That’s not something that would be considered.” 

The City Council will discuss its regulatory authority over the imitation totem poles at its next meeting on Thursday. Walsh said the Council could try to enact new regulations, but that may be difficult due to the First Amendment rights of private property owners.

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