Alaska State Museum object number: II-B-833
Origin: Tongass Island
A photograph entitled “Tlingit men named Billy Andrews and Charles Brown with carved figure, Saxman, Alaska, 1939” is in the University of Washington Libraries digital collection, negative no. NA3808, Viola Garfield Collection no. 130.
Friday was a wonderful opportunity to visit the redesigned State Museum, or SLAM (State Library, Archives and Museum) in downtown Juneau. As I moved through the first floor of collections, it was dramatically different from the old museum I remembered. I enjoyed the groupings and spent much of my time in the front section focusing on the Alaska Native cultures. As I made the conscious decision to try to make it through the rest of the museum I came across the remnants of the “Lincoln Pole”, which is the object I chose to focus on for this blog.
I was drawn to this object because of a recent family vacation where we ended up on a tour of Saxman, where there is a totem park with a replica of the “Lincoln Pole”. I have included a picture of it from our trip, and though we were too busy socializing with local elders to hear our tour guides information on the pole, we were able to overhear another guides version of the pole’s story or history. In essence it was a pole to memorialize or thank the US government for their support via military forces, which helped the Ravens who were warring with the Eagles. I’m sure each tour guide probably gives a different story in typical ‘white knight’ fashion to appease visiting tourists. The story we heard and the totem pole we were looking at just didn’t seem to sit right with my husband or I so this specific pole as been lingering in my thoughts since then. I personally had no idea part of the original pole was in the State Museum, despite my numerous visits it must have been overlooked. The museum was transferred this portion of the pole from the US Forest Service in the late 1930’s back when this was a federally run museum – The Territorial Museum. The US Forest Service transferred it during the 1930’s when they were working on Totem Pole restorations through the CCC during the New Deal Era – more of this information can be found in the video link below.
I understand that the museum is still in its opening stages, so the markers identifying this specific piece were missing. I wanted to know a lot more about it and the wonderful people working at the museum went above and beyond to help me gather more information on it. I’ve included that research below if anyone is interested in more information.
Here was the information provided to me via the Museum’s ARGUS database:
Totem pole was presented by the U.S. Forest Service to the Alaska State Museum following a CCC project to replicate this pole. The replica of the “Lincoln Totem” was mounted in the totem park at Saxman. “The so-called Lincoln Totem Pole from Tongass Island was, according to a report by judge Wickersham, a figure of Abraham Lincoln. The carving of the pole was allegedly sponsored by Tlingit slaves in commemoration of President Lincoln’s roll in ending slavery. More current reports by William Paul, Sr., Tlingit Indian born near Tongass Village, (published in the Alaska Journal, summer issue, 1971) gives the name as ‘The Proud Raven Pole’ and the top figure as representing ‘The first white man seen by the Tongass Island People.’ However, there is little doubt that a photograph of Lincoln was indeed used for the model of the top figure representing ‘The first white man.’ In the Alaska State Museum, there is on display the original Lincoln which was atop the totem. It was replaced by a new one as the old one was decaying.” Source unknown (from a newspaper article). Came into collection 1930-39 era. Thought to be carved around 1860 or 1870
A quick search on the database upstairs lead me to an informative index card: Alaska 1978.0008VF – from the Alaskan Collectors Club.
This card provided information about the Seward Totem pole and the “Lincoln Pole” and how their histories mix. Secretary of State William Seward’s visited to Alaska in 1869 and with Chief Ebbetts near Fort Tongass. This supposedly was the first time the Ganaxadi, Raven Clan, heard of Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery. The card then mentions that “one third of the natives in Alaska were held in captivity as slaves by other tribes.” The card continues on to state “Abraham Lincoln was memorialized as the great emancipator by the realistic carving of his figure on a totem pole more than half a century before the famous Lincoln Memorial…”
Here is one photo I found online of the original poles discussed in the card above in their original location, but in the time given I was unable to find its original location so I am including a link to the article it was published in. http://www.sitnews.org/JuneAllen/AlaskaDay/101702_alaska_day.html
Upstairs at the museum I was also guided to a 15-page article by William Paul Sr. about the history of the pole and his investigation into the fabricated story created by Judge James Wickersham. I don’t have the rights to republish the article here, nor would I do justice to William Paul’s words with a summary, so I highly recommend checking out his article that does an amazing job of deconstructing Wickersham’s story, it also includes pictures of the original pole standing in its original location and a lot of cultural and historical background information.
Paul, William L. Sr (1971). The Real Story of the Lincoln Totem. The Alaska Journal, 1(3), pp. 2-16.
Finally, I was pointed in the direction of Emily Moore, PhD. She received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and was a visiting scholar at Sealaska Heritage Institute in 2011. She researched the restoration and creation of Totem parks in Southeast Alaska in the 1930’s and 40’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. created in the New Deal era. This is a 45 minute video, and provides information into the historical background of the totem pole restorations and the coordination between Tlingit and Haida tribes and the federal government. I always appreciate what Sealaska Heritage Institute does with their visiting scholars program and lunch time lectures, so I’m including a link to their website as well.