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The Chief Johnson Totem Pole

The Chief Johnson Totem Pole, located in Alaska, is a symbol of Tlingit culture. It tells a story through its carved figures, each representing different parts of a tale. The pole was controversially moved and restored, sparking discussions about cultural heritage and preservation. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Lauren] We're here in Ketchikan, standing before the Chief Johnson totem pole which is the most photographed totem pole in Alaska. - Hello, my name's Richard Jackson. But properly, my Tlingit name is- (Richard speaks Tlingit) I am from the Taant'a kwáan, more known as the Tongass people. We're from the town of Ketchikan, Kickxáan, which means under the wings of an eagle. My brother, Israel Shotridge, Kinstaádaál, he carved the pole in 1989. The first carving occurred in 1902 when Chief Johnson was the head of the Yan Wulihashi Hít House, which is the Drifting Ashore House of the Raven side of the Tongass tribe, which is called the Gaanax.adi. He honored his mother with this carving and they had a pole raising and had assistance with it. And it came down in 1982. Over time, it just deteriorated. So in 1989, the Tongass Tribe nonprofit, decided they needed a focal point for their original settlement that says we were from here. So, we rededicated the pole after it was carved. 1200 people came to town from many villages. We had dancing for a whole day. We had meals for a whole day. And we had what we call a ku.éex', which is the payoff party for those who came. And then in 1992, my brother restored, and then it was restored again, because of the weather here, I believe it was in 2018. - [Lauren] This pole rises 55 feet above us and 33 feet of this pole is actually left uncarved which is significant. - [Richard] Well, there are different ways that northwest coast tribes do carvings. In our case, in the Tongass we believe that space is significant and part of the whole carving. And when you look at this pole up above, you'll see the beak of a raven, and above that you'll see two slaves, and then there'll be space all the way to the top. And the reason for the space is to acknowledge the significance of the Golden Eagle that's on top. It's one of the clan emblems of the Raven side of the Tongass tribe which is, this is a Raven pole, carved by their in-laws because you can't carve and brag about yourself. So, your brother-in-laws carved a pole and in this case, it being a Raven pole, it would be carved by their Eagle or Bear brothers. In which, when we carved the pole in 1989, my brother, who is a bear, carved it for the Ravens. - [Lauren] And so let's look closely at what we're seeing here in terms of the story of Fog Woman and Raven. - [Richard] The story of Raven, who is a mythological being that's a trickster, with his two slaves, he built a cap at the mouth of the Ketchikan Creek, and then went fishing for winter food. They only caught little bullheads, which are little teeny fish with big eyes. So, he went home when the fog came in. They paddled and he was lost. And suddenly a woman was in the back of his boat. How did she get there? No one knew. She asked the Ravens for his spruce hat which he held on her left side. All the fog went into the basket. Raven planned another fishing trip. He left his wife, Fog Woman. He took his slaves and left one of them with Fog Woman. While Raven was away, Fog Woman and the slave got hungry and commanded the slave to fill a water basket with water from the spring and put it down in front of her. She dipped her finger in the water and she commanded the slave to pour the water toward the sea. The slave did as he was told, and found a large sockeye. The slave cooked the fish and ate it. Fog Woman told the slave to clean the meat from between his teeth so Raven could not know about the salmon they ate. When Raven came home, the slave ran down the beach. He was happy. Raven was real smart, and he knew people's secrets. So, he saw the meat between his slave's teeth and asked, "What's between your teeth?" The slave said, "Oh, nothing. That's the flesh of the bullheads." Raven was very angry and the slave finally told him about the sockeye. Raven called his wife. He asked her how she got the salmon. She told him the secret. She told him to bring his spruce hat and fill it with water. Raven was hungry. He hurried and got the water and placed it in front of her. She dipped four fingers into water. She told him to pour the water out. Four sockeye came out of the basket. After the meal Raven asked Fog Woman if she could produce more fish. These were the first salmon. They were before all salmon. She said, "build a smokehouse." So he did. Fog Woman directed Raven to bring her a basket of water once more. This time she washed her hand and her head in the water. Then she told him to pour the water back into the spring. Right away, the spring water filled with salmon. The story goes, her head had salmon swimming in it. It was flowing like a river or héen, we call a creek. They cleaned the salmon and put them in the smokehouse. They filled the storehouse and there was enough to fill the smokehouse again. Raven was happy and began to talk carelessly about his wife, and forgetting that she brought the fish, that she created a fish. They quarreled and Raven did something we never do in our people. He struck her. She told him she would leave him and go back to her father's house. So, she left the house and walked slowly towards the sea and the sound like the wind came from the smokehouse. It roared. The sound became louder and louder. Raven saw she was really leaving him. He ran after and tried to catch her. His hands slipped through her as though fog and water. Fog Woman slowly walked toward the sea and all the salmon followed her and all the salmon in the storehouse and all the salmon in the smokehouse came to life and they followed her and they jumped into her hair while she walked to the sea. Because the salmon were in her hair. She had very long flowing hair. Raven commanded the slaves to save some fish but they did not have the strength to do so. Fog Woman disappeared from sight taking all the salmon with her. Raven said to his slaves "We still have some salmon in the storehouse for winter." He forgot they had all took off and with her, after they came back to life. He did not know they were gone. He had no food except a few bullheads. Each spring, Fog Woman produced salmon in the basket, fresh spring water, and they return each year in the cycle of life. Every three years, a salmon comes back and they spawn and then they pass away. The next year, another group comes in. So, it's a continuation. If that is not interrupted, they will be here in perpetuity. If we don't mess with nature. They return each year in the stream. At the head of every stream dwells the creek woman, Fog Woman. The mythological meaning of the story which is respect your wife, to take care of your resources, to honor the relationship you have with nature. We're all about balance. And this story was written by my mother Esther Shea. She's one of the first cultural bearer for the Alaska Federation of Natives which is the huge organization of Alaska that encompasses the recognized tribes and the corporate tribes that are here in Alaska. - [Lauren] And your brother Israel Shotridge has several other poles that are actually very close to us where we're standing today. - [Richard] Yes, he's an accomplished carver that we selected to do this Johnson pole. Gijook pole really, properly, that's a Golden Eagle pole. They, what they call it is Chief Johnson pole. The pole itself is balanced out with primary lines with the outline of the body. Red is the secondary lines, as you see his hands. And then you got thinner black lines which are the eyes. You have ovoids, which shows flow and U's that are emotion. Usually the filler, which is the carved out portions like the U's and the ovoid you see, they decided to paint those teal during ancient times. They didn't have paint, so they got copper and they would get a airtight cedar box, urinate in it and put a piece of copper in there. The urine would turn blue if they just left it there a long time or teal for a shorter period of time if it was exposed to any kind of ammonia. And then the black is charcoal generally and they mix it with fish oil. Once they mix it with fish oil, it gets a bit of glaze to it, so there's some durability. The same case with the red, which is red ochre. Some cases they use yellow, which is made from a moss. This is the most common colors. That changed after 1868 when the United States so-called purchased the land from Russia. - [Lauren] Which of course they didn't actually own. - [Richard] No, there's a concept of ownership that doesn't exist in Tlingit, is that possessory rights belong to a clan but we don't own it because it moves it on from the clan that is alive to the next clan. And it could change, you know, if there's a reciprocation of use of the land by other clans or if they move or migrate. We have that, and that's how we retain our land. And even though it was, we were removed from it and had to live in Ketchikan, in native allotments because we, they, we made it a national forest, we still regard this area as our land. Regard everything that we own that exists, whether it's rock, alive or land, or stories or songs as our at.óowu, it's our precious possessions. - [Lauren] This pole is different than say poles that would have been raised into the ground itself. And this one has been bolted into the ground and elevated off the ground so that it doesn't rot. - [Richard] The original pole that went up in 1902, there was a clan house here. There was a number of clan houses in this area. And the clan house behind it was the Raven house, it was called the Yan Wulihashi Hit House. So when Chief Johnson decided to honor his mother by putting this pole up, they did the pole and they had a much longer hole than you see because the pole penetrated the ground 18 feet. Of course, when you do that over time, the water that we have here, which is quite extensive in Alaska, this is the rainiest place in the world almost. If you look at wood quality, it's made of yellow cedar and it's durable. But over time, it'll start get soft in it and when that, once that happens, the ants get in it, it starts to break down. So, when we did the pole, as they are doing now, the pole is not in the ground. We put a creosote log in there, you'll see there's dowels that are in the pole. We attached the pole to the creosote log. - [Lauren] It's so spectacular to see this. And of course, now that I know the story behind it and hearing you elaborate on the story it's so much more meaningful. And I'm really honored that you were able to share this with me today. (piano music)