Haida potlatch pole

What is a potlatch? And how is it related to this totem pole?

Haida potlatch pole, 19th century, from the village of Old Kasaan, exact dimensions unknown (Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, Alaska). Speakers: Teresa DeWitt and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank


Additional resources

Learn more about the Totem Heritage Center

Read more about totem poles from The Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University

Learn about the Northwest Coast Village Project

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:06] 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 DeWitt: [0:15] This pole here is from the Haida people, and it is representing a clan that is being memorialized. Long time ago, there was a highly respected clan leader amongst the Haida people. 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.

[0:37] 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. Unfortunately, the rest of it has decayed.

[0:46] At the bottom is the clan crest of the beaver, which we can tell by the ears on top of its head and the shape of the eyes, the nose. And you can see the remnants of the paws that are in front of the beaver, which at one time was holding a chew stick.

[1:02] Right below, you can see the figure of a baby beaver that’s hanging onto the crosshatched tail. This beaver at one time had a face on it and it was all in one piece. You can 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 time.

[1:22] 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.

[1:29] 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 word potlatch translates into a gift-giving ceremony or gift-giving event.

[1:47] 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.

[1:58] The word potlatch is actually describing totem pole raisings, name-giving ceremonies, clan houses that were opening, or re-dedications of clan houses. It takes anywhere between one to five years to get ready for an event.

[2:12] 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 in the clans that will be coming.

[2:31] It could be new Chilkat blankets being woven, new button-robe blankets. It could be bentwood boxes. There’s many different things to be made. 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 can last anywhere between one or two days up to one or two weeks.

[2:51] 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. When they invite them, they make sure that nothing has gone wanted for.

[3:10] 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’s songs, their stories, bring out some special items, or in Tlingit we call at.óowu, something that is precious to the clan.

[3:28] When they go back to their 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.

[3:37] When you look at a totem pole such as this one with these potlach rings, you count them. On this one, there is six rings. 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.

[3:51] 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 different canoes or paddles. It’s the skills and the respect that they put into the event that makes them rich and wealthy.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:12] All of that is so beautifully represented here in this pole. 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.

[4:36] But then if we look at the open mouth, we can see that the carvers have given us detail to pick out each individual tooth. The lines there are shallower and so demonstrating the expertise of the different depth of carving. Originally, this pole would have been painted. We still see some of that paint on this pole.

Teresa: [4:52] You can see underneath the wings of the eagle, and you can 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 100 years of being out in the open elements. This pole’s one of the fortunate ones where it was standing within the village.

[5:13] A 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.

[5:21] Where nowadays, a lot of people that have poles that are set out in the open air in public have a tendency to touch up the paint, to go wash the poles as needed. They inspect the top and the bottom. That’s one of the big differences that we’re looking at today.

[5:37] [music]

Cite this page as: Teresa DeWitt, Totem Heritage Center Museum Attendant and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Haida potlatch pole," in Smarthistory, February 24, 2022, accessed June 16, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/haida-potlatch-pole/.