If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The story of the Oyster Man, a Tlingit totem pole

The Saxman Totem Park houses the Oyster Man totem pole, a significant artifact of the Nexadi clan. This pole tells a tragic tale of a young man who disobeyed his elders and lost his life to a giant oyster. The pole, now laid to rest, serves as a reminder of the importance of respecting and learning from elders. Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.

Video transcript

(bright jazz music) - [Teresa] We're here at the Saxman Totem Park and we're standing in front of the Oyster Man totem pole, which is actually no longer standing but has now been taken down for safety reasons. - [Lauren] The Oyster Man pole is one of the poles that belong to our Nexadi clan, which I'm a part of. It's a very old pole that we have to help remind us of different things. It was raised to memorialize a young person that passed away, as well as to remind us to listen to our aunties and uncles and those that are before us so that we live a safe life. And to remind us that when they teach us things it's always for a reason. So long time ago, children was never taught by the aunties and uncles. The knowledge was never forced on their children. It was something that they had to earn. That way the ones that are teaching them knew that they were maturely ready to listen to it. They build that trust and that respect that way. When we teach the younger ones, it it comes from the matrilineal side of the family. So normally it's the mother's brothers and sisters that teach the nieces and nephews. Within our clan system it's not cousins that we have. It's always clan brothers and clan sisters. So in this particular incidence there was some uncles taking out some nephews to make sure that they were taught how to gather octopus, clams, cockles, oysters, fish, and seal, and deer all in the right manner to preserve it for the year to come for their families. They were testing their knowledge. And one of the younger ones decided to dig up a hole that he seen in the ground that squirted up at him. He started digging and the tide was very low at the time. He decided to use his hand, which was something that his uncles told him not to do. And as he was digging up this food for his family his hand got clamped down on by a giant oyster. The oyster continued to hang onto this person's arm and he couldn't pull it out. He tried digging himself out, but it didn't work. So he called for help, and the people around him from his village area went down to try to help dig his arm out and they couldn't do it 'cause the tide was coming in fast. Back then it was hard for one person to survive with one hand, because everybody had their own attributes that they put into their clan families and their households. He didn't wanna cut off his arm, like they gave him the option to. So the ladies took a seal stomach that was already drying out and put it over his head and it had the intestines coming out of the stomach. So in hope when the water came up and covered his head it would help him breathe as the ladies kept digging out. Unfortunately, the tide kept coming up over his head and he wasn't able to survive under the water for long duration of time, therefore he passed away. - [Teresa] And looking at the pole we see imagery that is relating to that specific story. - [Lauren] The clan crests that you'll see on there belong to the Nexadi clan, but two things stick out of the designs on the pole. One being at the very bottom is a circle with the face on it. And on one side of the mouth, there's a hole. When the pole was standing, there used to be a human figure squatting down with his hand inside the pole which represented the young male that had his hand in the sand inside the oyster's mouth. Right above that is the beaver. But on top of the beaver's head is the face. What the elders said is that face is what represented the young person that passed away. The other clan emblems are clan crests that belonged to him. - [Teresa] We're seeing another beaver and also an eagle. This totem pole used to be standing inside the main park at Saxman Totem Park, but was taken down for safety reasons and is now resting just on the edge of the parking lot. But that was not where it was originally supposed to be resting once it was taken down. - [Lauren] Before the newcomers came here, the way our people traditionally laid a pole to rest was in the woods. So this was standing until it was leaning so far that it was causing possible danger or harm if it was to fall on somebody going by it. So the city of Saxman decided to get permission from the clan and they took the pole down. They laid the pole to rest on the side of the parking lot, so that way it would stay safe, but also honoring the tradition that the totem pole goes back to the earth.. So from here, it'll deteriorate and go back. The people that come here for the park they could see the craftsmanship and see the original pole in its state. (bright jazz music)