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Haida potlatch pole

A conversation between Teresa DeWitt and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank in front of a Haida potlatch pole, 19th century, from the village of Old Kasaan, exact dimensions unknown (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska). Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Lauren] We're here at the Totem Heritage Center looking at a group of totem poles, and I'm fascinated by one that only has carving at the top and the bottom. - [Teresa] This pole here is from the Haida people and is representing a clan that is being memorialized. A long time ago there was a highly respected clan leader amongst the Haida people and his name was Skowal. And when his young grandchild passed away in a very tragic accident, he had a totem pole raised to memorialize the individual. At the top of the pole, there's remnants of an eagle. You just see the wings and the feet that are sitting at the top, and unfortunately the rest of it has decayed. And at the bottom is the clan crest of the beaver, which we could tell by the ears on top of its head and the shape of the eyes, the nose, and you could see the remnants of the paws that are in front of the beaver, which at one time was holding a chew stick. And right below you could see the figure of a baby beaver that's hanging onto the crosshatched tail. - [Teresa] This beaver at one time had a face on it, and it was all in one piece. You could see the different sections that look like cylinders that are pieced together. Some people think that it's forgotten, that they were going to go back and carve it later, or they just didn't have to time, but what actually you're looking at is something that is very special when you see on a totem pole. Some people call them potlatch rings. When the newcomers came up here they went through many different tribes as they continued to explore the indigenous people of this area. One of the words that they came across from another tribe was potlatch. The potlatch translates into a gift-giving ceremony or a gift-giving event. Now, when the newcomers came up through here, they noticed something common that was amongst the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people that are cultural events. There is many gifts given out to your opposite clans throughout the event. So the word potlatch is actually describing totem pole raisings, name-giving ceremonies, clan houses that were opening or rededications of clan houses. It takes anywhere between one to five years to get ready for an event. And what goes on during that time, the clan that's hosting the cultural event start making things, start handing out gifts when the time comes. So they could be creating new paddles for the men that paddle the canoes. They could start making dance paddles for those that dance with paddles and the clans that will be coming. There could be new Chilkat blankets being woven, new button-robe blankets. It could be bentwood boxes. There's many different things to be made. While the year of the event, the clan that's hosting it, they'll gather enough food, not only for themselves, but for the entire event. The event itself could last anywhere between one or two days, up to one or two weeks. And during that time, the clan that's hosting it will take care of all their guests, their opposite clans that are invited. Your opposite clan could be of your spouse, or your father's clan or your mother's father's clan. It's somebody that balances you out in life and throughout the culture. So when they invite them, they make sure that nothing has gone wanted for. They'll make sure that they're housed, that they're fed, that everything is taken care of. At the event, the guests and the hosting clan will have a chance to share their clan songs, their stories, bring out some special items or in Tlingit we call at.oowu, something that is precious to the clan. And when they go back to the original villages they came from, the hosting clan will then give them enough food to go to the village that they're traveling back to. When you look at a total pole such as is this one with these potlatch rings, you count them, like on this one there is six rings, and we know that this clan is very wealthy, not wealthy as in having a lot of money, having big houses, and all these special items, but they're wealthy within the terms of the clan is able to work together to accomplish these cultural events that they have this time to have their clan weavers weave these special gifts that they might hand out to different canoes or paddles. So it's the skills and the respect that they put into the event that makes them rich and wealthy. - [Lauren] And all of that is so beautifully represented here in this poll. I'm struck by the ways that the carvers have used different depths of perception to show parts of the beaver's body three dimensionally, other parts details. For instance, if we're looking at the arms of the beaver that are held up, there's a very deep carving that gives a nice play of light and shadow, but then if we look at the open mouth, we can see that the carvers have given us detailed pick out each individual tooth and the lines there are shallower, and so demonstrating the expertise of the different depth of carving. Originally this pole would've been painted and we still see some of that paint on this pole. - [Teresa] You could see underneath the wings of the Eagle and you could see at the bottom by the beaver's face underneath the chin, around the eyes of the beaver, within the ears of the beaver. Unfortunately, a lot of these poles have seen a lot of weatherization within the over a hundred years of being out in the open elements. So this pole is one of the fortunate ones where it was standing within the village. Long time ago, we put up the pole and we leave it as is. We don't repaint it out of respect of the carver and the person that owned the pole. Where nowadays, a lot of people that have poles that stand out in the open air in public, have a tendency to touch up the paint, to go wash the poles as needed and they inspect the top and the bottom. And that's one of the big differences that we are looking at today. (jazzy piano music)