Ketchikan totem poles repaired

Work on aging poles expected to extend their life for years

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2001

KETCHIKAN - For years totem poles have told their stories.

Those stories have lasted for generations among the Natives of Southeast Alaska. But while the traditional accounts remain, many of the totems that described them do not.

Ketchikan's Chief Johnson and Chief Kyan poles are two exceptions, however, in the form of aging replicas that are still standing. And because of a preservation effort, the two poles should continue to tell their stories for several more years.

Three members of the Tongass Tribe, with the help of a conservator, spent part of this spring cleaning the two totems, which became dirty and discolored after years of exposure to Southeast Alaska's harsh weather.

"I'm glad the totems are being taken care of," said Robert Jackson, 22, a Tongass Tribe member who helped with the project with his father, Willard Jackson, 53. The two are members of the Tongass Tribe's Bear-Eagle Clan.

"It feels good to take care of our poles. This is our culture. It explains who we are," Robert Jackson said, pointing to the Chief Kyan pole, which stands in downtown Ketchikan's Whale Park.

"I've been looking forward to doing this since I first heard about the project," said Andrew Todd, a conservator consulting on the preservation effort.

First, moss, lichen and dirt was removed with bristle brushes and soft wood scrapers. Then the poles were washed with a biodegradable detergent. After they were cleaned, a preservative was to be applied to prevent further growth of moss and lichen. A special water repellent also was to be added to protect the wood.

Todd has worked with Ketchikan totem poles before. In 1987, he recommended preserving totems lying in a shed near Ketchikan Creek. Today, some of those totems are on display at the Totem Heritage Center.

Willard Jackson, whose brother Israel Shotridge carved the Chief Johnson and Chief Kyan poles, said it's important to have Todd helping with the project because he is recognized as someone who respects the tribe's artifacts.

"I'm just looking for things to go in a peaceful manner, so that things go well and we can get in touch with our ancestors," Willard Jackson said. "That is what this is all about."

The Chief Johnson pole was raised in 1989 and stands near the location of the original, which was raised in 1901. That pole is now housed in the Totem Heritage Center.

The Chief Kyan pole is the second reproduction of the original pole that was carved in the early 1900s. Today's pole was raised in 1993 and the first replica was carved in the 1960s and now sits in the Totem Heritage Center.

Also helping with the preservation of the poles was Bob Johnson, a member of the Tongass Tribe's Raven Clan. Willard Jackson said having his son work on the project is special, but Johnson's help is equally important.

Johnson, 41, was surprised he was asked to take part in the project.

"I was told it would help to have someone from my clan actually working on these poles," Johnson said. "And the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a good idea."



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