The story of the Oyster Man, a Tlingit totem pole

A conversation between Teresa DeWitt and Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank in front of the Oyster Man Totem Pole (sometimes referred to as “Giant Rock Oyster Totem”), originally carved in the 19th century, recarved c. 1940 (Saxman Totem Park, Saxman, Alaska)

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Oyster Man Pole

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Key points 

  • The Indigenous peoples and nations of southeast Alaska and the coasts of British Columbia and Washington State have long practiced the art of creating and erecting totem poles. The poles are carved from the logs of giant local cedar trees and then painted. Different types of totem poles include clan crest poles, mortuary or memorial poles, potlatch poles, and shame poles (and sometimes these overlap). Each serves a different purpose in the community.
  • Totem poles emphasize the importance of oral and visual traditions among the Indigenous peoples and nations of the Pacific Northwest Coast. This memorial pole from the Nex.ádi clan of the Sanyaa Kwáan Tlingit visually recounts a story that reinforces the importance of knowledge being passed down to children from their matrilineal aunts and uncles. 
  • A good deal of individual clans’ history and broader cultural history was lost when European and Anglo-American newcomers, who began to arrive in the area in the 18th century, brought disease and misconceptions about the practices and traditions of the local Indigenous peoples and nations. Traders and colonizers destroyed or defaced totem poles incorrectly thought to be objects of religious worship, and many Native people left their villages for opportunities in newly emerging industries and towns.
  • Saxman Totem Park was one of six parks built between 1938 and 1942 as part of the U.S. government’s New Deal labor and cultural preservation programs, specifically emerging from the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The federal government paid Tlingit and Haida men, as members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, to repair or recreate more than one hundred 19th-century totem poles from uninhabited Native villages in Southeast Alaska. This particular pole was removed from the village of Cape Fox and then recarved and placed at Saxman Totem Park. 
  • While traditionally totem poles would be left at the spot where they were originally raised, and allowed to deteriorate so the wood would return to the earth, the poles at Saxman and the other totem parks are preserved (frequently through recarving) to teach future Native generations as well as park visitors about the cultural practices of the local Indigenous communities.  

Go deeper

Learn more about Saxman Totem Park

Watch the Smarthistory video about the Proud Raven Totem Pole at Saxman park. 

Learn more about the effort to create totem parks, including Saxman park, in Emily L. Moore, Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal totem parks (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018)

Read more about totem poles and the Northwest Coast Village Project from the Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University

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

More to think about

The story recounted on this totem pole is a reminder about how life skills are often passed on by example, from generation to generation within a community or culture. What are some of the lessons you have learned from elders in your community and how (and where) would you visually represent that lesson or your experience of it? 

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.