Teaching guide
Saxman Totem Park and the New Deal in Alaska

Tlingit Oyster Man Totem Pole and Proud Raven (“Lincoln”) Totem Pole (originally 19th century, recarved c. 1940) will be useful in the study of:

  • Interwar United States History
  • The Depression, New Deal, and Works Progress Administration
  • History of Native American and U.S. government relations
  • Indigenous art and culture of North America (with a focus on the Tlingit and Haida communities of the Pacific Northwest)

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to: 

  • Discuss the Oyster Man and Proud Raven totem poles (Northwest Coast, Native Alaska) as primary sources that link to the specific historical context of the Great Depression, the  New Deal, and the history of U.S. government and Native American relations.   
  • Apply the tools of visual analysis to support interpretation of artwork
  • Identify and elaborate on certain key issues related to “American and regional culture,” prompted by an example of American art

1. Watch the videos

The videos on the Proud Raven and Oyster Man totem poles are each less than eight minutes in length. Ideally, the videos should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the videos to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the artworks that are being discussed. Key points and a self-diagnostic quiz are provided to support each video.

2. Read about Saxman Totem Park and its historical context

Most scholars have dismissed Alaska’s 1930s-era totem parks as inauthentic “tourist arts” invented by federal bureaucrats and devoid of meaning for Haida and Tlingit people. But this dismissal ignores the importance of these totem parks to Native communities of the 1940s—as well as today. Overlooking the story of the New Deal totem parks also misses the motivations behind an important act of federal patronage for Native American art—one of the largest acts of federal patronage for Native art in the twentieth century—and the degree to which Tlingit and Haida communities participated in and actively shaped this government program for their own cultural and political needs.Emily L. Moore, Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal Totem Parks [1]

Roosevelt’s New Deal

In response to the ravages of the Great Depression, newly elected United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the New Deal in 1933, infusing much needed dollars into the economy and instituting new or updated regulations, programs, and agencies that provided jobs to scores of unemployed workers who built, repaired, decorated, and modernized public works and infrastructure across the country. This multi-pronged initiative of economic and social relief, recovery, and reform lasted through the decade and brought about a sea change in the size and role of the federal government in the nation’s civic welfare. 

Among the new programs and agencies were the Works Progress Administration (WPA; later renamed the Work Projects Administration) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The WPA created extensive public works projects, constructing roads, buildings, and bridges, as well as creating public murals, plays, music, and other artistic products. WPA projects also included the inventorying and preservation of the nation’s diverse historic heritage, including that of Indigenous America. The CCC specifically trained and employed over three million young men to carry out projects on public lands such as forests and parks, and at historic sites. The corps included World War I veterans as well as Native Americans (some of whom were also veterans). Both the WPA and the CCC played an important part in the story of Saxman Totem Park and the New Deal in Alaska. 

The New Deal and Native Americans

Roosevelt’s New Deal included targeted efforts to improve conditions for Indigenous people across the United States, marking a significant shift in U.S. government-Native relations. Since the second half of the 19th century, with legislation such as the 1851 Indian Appropriations Act, the 1883 Code of Indian Offenses, and the 1887 Dawes Act, Native communities had been legally restricted from engaging in cultural and religious practices such as rituals, arts, and language, and were systematically stripped of their claims to land and their ability to exercise self-governance. Part of a larger movement to assimilate Native Americans within Euro-American culture, Indigenous heritage and cultural expression were actively suppressed. During this period, Native Americans were not U.S. citizens and therefore did not have access to the rights afforded to citizens, notably the right to vote or actively participate in political processes which might improve their situation. With the New Deal, however, this context began to change. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act or the Indian New Deal), was intentionally designed to improve political, economic, and social conditions for Native Americans through access to civil rights such as education, employment, financial credit, and self-governance. The act also included provisions for conserving and developing Indigenous lands and cultural heritage, the latter being explicitly supported by the creation in 1935 of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. 

What prompted this change in policy and approach to the Native community? The development and implementation of the New Deal coincided with a larger initiative by the federal government in the interwar years to identify and preserve a uniquely American heritage, one that was distinct from that of Europe but inclusive of a range of ethnic, racial, and geographic contexts in America. This cultural nationalism was, in part, motivated by a society seeking to retreat from the fast pace of modernization, heightened by the difficulties of the Depression when people imagined and yearned for a past that they believed was simpler and more sustainable. It was also driven by a desire to challenge the perception that the United States was not old enough to claim a long and distinguished history like Europeans could. Given their long history in North America, some Indigenous communities and their art were therefore positioned by the U.S. government in this movement “as prize components of the nation’s pluralistic heritage”—much the same as Greco-Roman art and architecture had been in Europe. [2]

The context of the New Deal in Alaska

While the Indian Reorganization Act and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board brought about changes for Native communities across the United States, the situation these initiatives met with in Alaska was distinct. In the 1930s, Alaska was still a territory, and not yet a state. As such, although there had been some form of non-Native military, civil, or legislative representatives in Alaska since the late 19th century, these officials had little power and the territory was largely controlled by the federal government. Among other effects, this dynamic allowed for continual increases in mining, fishing, whaling, trading and other industries that were operated by non-Natives who largely funneled natural resources and profits outside of the territory.

This reality directly impacted the ability of Native Alaskan communities to live and thrive as they had on land and waterways they had claimed as their own for centuries. Furthermore, Native Alaskan communities were subject to the same restrictive and suppressive policies of the late 19th and early 20th century as Native communities across the United States. In Southeast Alaska, the site of the New Deal totem parks, the impact of these policies on Tlingit and Haida Indigenous peoples was significant. Their long history of monumental totem pole carving had all but ceased, potlatch ceremonies (ku.éex in Tlingit and wáahlaal in Haida) were condemned, and clan knowledge and stories were not being actively passed down to younger generations. Instead, Native people were directed to adopt, or assimilate, Euro-American social and cultural practices. In this context, many Tlingit and Haida people reluctantly renounced their culture and language in a forced exchange for education and land, moving away from their Native villages where totem poles and clan houses had been erected for generations. The villages were left unoccupied, and in some cases, totem poles were intentionally destroyed or defaced by non-Natives who incorrectly thought they were objects of Native religious worship.

Like in many other parts of the United States, land rights were a contentious issue in Alaska. Not only had the United States purchased the territory of Alaska from Russia in 1867 without any Indigenous consultation, an executive order from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 appropriated seventeen million acres of aboriginal land to establish the Tongass National Forest, once again without Indigenous negotiation. The struggle for this land played out through the period of the New Deal (and beyond) and factored significantly in the creation of the totem parks.  

Building totem parks

Among the nationwide efforts of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board was an initiative to promote the unique characteristics of Native American art, focusing on its design, quality, and value for the country’s identity and heritage. This initiative included restoration projects which were intended to heighten pride and visibility of Native arts across the U.S.—and, in the spirit of the New Deal, bring jobs and economic prosperity to Native communities. In Southeast Alaska, the initiative manifested in the restoration of Haida and Tlingit totem poles and the creation of six parks for their display. The U.S. Forest Service received the necessary federal funds to enact this project in 1938. The CCC employed close to two hundred Tlingit and Haida young men, most of whom were paid $2 per day, to restore over one hundred 19th-century totem poles from ancestral Native villages. The young men were trained and mentored by elder carvers in the community who also passed along the ancestral stories associated with the totem poles. Depending on their condition, totem poles were either repaired or recreated. Six totem parks were developed between 1938 and 1942: Totem Bight, Saxman, Hydaburg, Klawock, Kasaan, and Shakes Island. 

Saxman, a small city just south of Ketchikan, is where several Tlingit families relocated in the early 20th century. When the totem parks were being proposed to the Native communities by the Forest Service, Tlingit elders suggested the specific site for Saxman park due to its location near Native homes situated along the beach, which would offer increased visibility from “steamers in the channel.” [3] Among the totem poles recreated at Saxman are the Proud Raven pole and the Oyster Man pole, each from different Tlingit clans. 

The creation of totem parks like Saxman succeeded in creating jobs for Native Alaskans and stimulating the local economy through new forms of tourism that highlighted Native arts, but a deeper probe into the details of the project reveals a more complicated story about U.S. government—Native relations and the different viewpoints and interests involved in the establishment of the parks. 

Contrasting motives and perspectives 

The New Deal totem parks stand as an important case study of the “entangled” histories of American and Native American art, as non-Natives sought to recode Native art forms within their own national narrative and as Native people sought to channel non-Native interest in their arts to assert their own claims of sovereignty.Emily L. Moore, Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal Totem Parks [4]

When the idea for the totem parks was first proposed, there was concern among the Tlingit and Haida communities about moving the poles from their original locations in unoccupied Native villages to the new parks. The practice of erecting totem poles in Native villages was tied specifically to the site: they served as a reflection of a clan’s history and identity by standing in front of the clan house, or, in the case of memorial poles, by being close to ancestral graves. In all cases, the poles were intentionally left to deteriorate in place (or very nearby) and then replaced with a new pole on that same spot. Moving the poles to new parks was feared by many as a disruption to this original context and life cycle, a disconnection that was only exacerbated by the designs for the parks once they were approved. The designs for all six parks were created by Forest Service architect Linn Forrest and were modeled on European-style landscape traditions, with poles organized by height or for aesthetic impact rather than by association with clans or villages. Additionally, in these designs and in the subsequent promotion of the parks for tourists, the poles were described and presented as preserved “ruins” of an abandoned past rather than part of the living, continuous history of Native Alaskans. This framing did not sit well with Indigenous claimants to the poles. 

In finally giving permission to the Forest Service to preserve the poles and create the parks, however, Tlingit and Haida people came to see the parks as an opportunity for Native communities. In their new locations, the totem poles sustained their meaning as legitimate aboriginal claims to land and sovereignty for the clans that created and erected them. The heightened attention on the parks from tourism and the promotion of Native American art across the United States could make this fact more visible and tangible in the ongoing debates between the Forest Service and Native Alaskans over land titles and self-governance. Specifically, the totem poles—and the parks they were moved to—could serve as evidence in the Tlingit and Haida lawsuit against the Forest Service over title to the land in Tongass National Forest, a case initiated in 1929 (Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. the United States). The suit was finally settled, for the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska, in 1968. In the intervening years, Congress had approved the harvesting of massive amounts of timber in the Forest and the Forest Service had neglected the totem parks. In this and other ways, the potential gains of the New Deal period for Native Alaskans seemed to be lost. But the 1960s brought some degree of relief and the pendulum of the U.S. government-Native relations continued to swing. In addition to the conclusion of the Tongass case, in 1961 the ownership of the totem parks and poles was fully transferred to the Native communities, who began to restore the parks and continue to maintain them today. 


[1] Emily L. Moore, Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal Totem Parks (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018) p. ix.

[2] Moore, p. 11.

[3] Moore, pp. 24–25.

[3] Moore, p. 4.

4. Discussion questions

  • How has your understanding and perception of the New Deal changed by learning about the creation of the totem parks and the context of Native Alaskan history?
  • What parallels do you see between the engagement of Native communities during the New Deal and today? 

5. Research projects and creative response activities

  • Research the work of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and restoration projects carried out in other Native communities in the United States during the New Deal. Select a specific project and identify the similarities and differences between it and the totem park project, considering the details of the projects and the context of U.S. governmentNative relations. 
  • Create a tourism poster and brochure for Saxman Totem Park for the year 1940, featuring either (or both) the Proud Raven or Oyster Man totem poles. Using the information and source material provided in this learning guide, position the language and design of the poster and brochure to support the Native perspective of the park.

6. Bibliography

Explore the details and legacy of the New Deal with the The Living New Deal project, from the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, including the specific pages dedicated to Saxman Totem Park.

Emily L. Moore, Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal totem parks (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018).

Learn more about the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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

Learn about Haida clan crest and potlatch totem poles and Tlingit mortuary and memorial poles, all among a group of 19th-century Tlingit and Haida totem poles that were transferred to the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan in the 1970s.

Richard Walker, “Northwest Coast Potlatch: Profound Ceremony and Celebration” in Native Peoples 20 no. 6 (2007) pp. 28–33.

Research on the Tlingit Potlatches from the Haines Sheldon Museum.

The Potlatch Ban from the Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University.

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.