Totem is one of oldest originals standing in Southeast

Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Unlike towns like Sitka and Ketchikan, which have totem parks, Juneau's more than 20 totem poles are spread out around the community - some indoors and some outdoors. Guide books usually give them scant mention and rarely place them on walking-tour maps.

Totems in the area include one illustrating the legend of the creation of mosquitoes at the Governor's House, and the Yax-te or Big Dipper totem at the Auke Recreation Area. The faade of Fred Meyer includes two totems.

One of the most notable totems in Juneau is the Old Witch Pole. It stands today in the atrium of the State Office Building with plantings at its feet that suggest its original position in the coastal rain forest. Two plaques give some of its history.

This magnificent Haida pole originally stood at old Sukkwan, a Haida village on the coast of Prince of Wales Island, near Hydaburg. The "Old Witch" is a legendary Haida character, enmeshed in legend with the Tlingit Gonakadet. The pole was carved about 1880 by a Haida named Dwight Wallace (often referred to in sources only as "the father of John Wallace"). It was once covered with many layers of commercial paint.

An undated photo of Sukkwan in the AHC Photography Core File shows the pole at its first location, in the company of several other totems. The pole stands at far left of the hazy scene, which pictures a row of houses facing the waterfront. A house at right of the scene seems to be abandoned, although smoke rises from a house in the center.

A photo on p. 26 of Edward Keithahn's book about totems and Southeast Native cultures, "Monuments in Cedar," shows a group of Haidas at Klinkwan. The caption says that "the man at the right with the Chilkat blanket over his lap was the carver of the 'Old Witch' totem pole.... His son was John Wallace, another famous Haida carver, who as a boy helped his father carve the so-called 'Old Witch' totem pole."

The pole was purchased from its Haida owners by Dr. Robert Simpson, a Juneau optometrist who regularly took his practice to remote villages. Simpson may have been able to purchase it because the person who originally commissioned it had died, or because the village was being abandoned as people moved to other areas - often areas closer to schools or jobs.

After the pole was moved to Juneau, it stood in front of the Nugget Shop at 219 South Franklin Street - the current location of Galligaskins. The proprietor of the Nugget Shop was Simpson's wife, Belle (1885-1985), who sold goods such as moccasins, ivory carvings, baskets, gold nuggets and small totem poles. When the Nugget Shop moved its headquarters to the corner of Third and Seward streets in the newly-built Simpson Building in the late 1940s, Dr. Simpson presented the pole to the city. The pole then stood beside the Juneau Memorial Library.

Taku winds and seaside damp are not kind to totem poles, so that they usually remain standing no longer than 50 years in the open. A field survey of Southeast Alaska totems, conducted from June to October, 1969, by Wilson Duff, Jane Wallen and Joe Clark, found the Old Witch "in desperate need of immediate care. ... The excellence of its sculpture, now masked by layers of paint, can be seen in old photographs which show it standing in Sukkwan. This pole can no longer be preserved in an outdoor setting; in fact, it is in imminent danger of falling and shattering." Wallen, director of the Alaska State Museum, recommended that it be given professional restorative treatment and displayed indoors.

When he examined the pole on June 27, 1969, Dr. Clark found "an extensive amount of interior decay" present in the lower pole, and judged it "in danger of falling or breaking up under high wind stresses." Clark believed that decay was so advanced that the pole could never again be placed in a self-supporting situation.

Who was Gonakadet? George Emmons explains that "The belief in the mythical being, Gonakadet, occurs along the whole coast. He lives in the sea, and brings power and fortune to all who see him. Sometimes he rises out of the water as a beautifully painted house front inlaid with the much-prized blue and green haliotis shell, again as the head of an immense fish or as an elaborately painted war canoe. In decorative art he is generally represented as a large head with arms, paws and fins."

"Next to Raven," Keithahn writes in Monuments in Cedar, "the most popular subject for totem pole decoration was the Gonakadet. Known also to the Haida as Wasgo, this lake monster is generally depicted as an aquatic wolf with some of the features of the killer whale. The Haida often depict it with a duck-like beak ...." In Juneau, Gonakadet is also the subject of a heraldic screen at the back of a pocket park on North Franklin.

Eventually ownership of the Sukkwan Old Witch Totem passed to the State Museum, and restoration - which took a year - began in 1976. The Old Witch Totem rested on the lobby floor on the eighth level of the State Office Building during this process. After the pole was restored, a crew raised it to its present position. The crew included Ed Way, Harvey Hildre, Oscar Olson, Ferrel Campbell, Dick Engen, Dan Monroe, Rollin Peters and Gary Boaz. George Arway, George Parker, Don Bowthorpe, Erling Olson and Alan Munro were also involved. Photos of this raising are in PCA 23 at the Alaska State Library. Installation took place on March 12, 1977.

The totem was dedicated in its new setting during ceremonies on April 29, 1977, photographed by Larry Stevens. Alfred Widmark, Belle Simpson, Lt. Gov. Lowell Thomas and William Overstreet were among the dignitaries present. Walter William, in ceremonial costume, served as master of ceremonies. The speakers noted that the totem was about 100 years old at the time of its dedication - a great age for a wooden sculpture that had been exposed to the elements.

The top figure on the pole wears a hat with six potlatch rings on it. These rings signify that the person who commissioned the pole had been sufficiently wealthy to hold six potlatches. A figure in the middle holds two salmon. This female is probably the mother-in-law or Old Witch herself, holding the salmon that she commanded her son-in-law to fetch.

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