Tlingit sovereignty and the Proud Raven (“Lincoln”) Pole

Proud Raven Totem Pole of the Taantʼa kwáan Gaanax.ádi (please note: the previous k, G, and x should each include an underscore) clan of the Raven moiety, first carved in the 1880s, recarved c. 1940, Saxman Totem Park, Saxman, Alaska. A Seeing America video; speakers: Dr. Emily Moore and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank. Gunalchéesh (thank you) to Joel Buchanan, clan leader of the Taantʼa kwáan Gaanax.ádi Tlingit, for permitting us to share his clanʼs story. Thank you to the City of Saxman for permitting us to record in the Saxman Totem Park.

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Proud Raven (Lincoln) Pole

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Key points 

  • For the Indigenous peoples and nations of southeast Alaska and the coasts of British Columbia and Washington State, totem poles convey the stories and status of the clans, or matrilineal families, that create them. All clans are members of one of a number of moieties, or groups within their community. Each moiety is represented by an animal such as the raven, eagle or wolf, and is indicated by the carving of that animal on a totem pole. Humans, animals, and supernatural beings are also carved on poles as crests; the particular combination of crests on a pole is unique to each clan. Crests reflect the stories of the clan ancestors’ interactions with the beings depicted, and remind family members about their heritage. On this clan crest pole, the raven at the base identifies the Gannax.ádi clan as part of the Raven moiety and the inclusion of the male figure at the top is a reference to the clan’s history of seeing the first white man in Tongass Tlingit territory.
  • Oral history and sovereignty are of great importance to the Indigenous peoples and nations of the Pacific Northwest Coast. For the Gannax.ádi clan, the sighting of the first white man in the area in the 18th century (likely a European or Anglo-American fur trader) is evidence of the Tlingit claim to the land—they were there before the white newcomers. Raising the original version of this totem pole on Tongass Island a century later was an important reminder of Tlingit sovereignty following the U.S.’s recent purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. The depiction of Abraham Lincoln on the pole was intended as a generic reference to the emergence of the white newcomer. For non-Native audiences, however, the inclusion of Lincoln on the pole was erroneously read as a memorial to the great leader and emancipator
  • 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 one of the catalysts for the entire totem pole restoration program because of the appeal of the image of Abraham Lincoln to New Deal officials who perpetrated the false story of the pole being a memorial to the former president. 

Go deeper

Learn more about Saxman Totem Park

Watch the Smarthistory video about the Oyster Man Totem Pole at Saxman park

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

Learn more about the New Deal projects in Saxman

Explore more of the history of the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln from Smarthistory’s project, The U.S. Civil War in Art 

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

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

More to think about

While the U.S. Forest Service perpetuated the name “Lincoln Pole” for this totem, the Gannax.ádi call it the Proud Raven pole. What do the differences in these names reveal about the meaning that the pole holds for each of these two audiences? 

Research project idea

Images of Abraham Lincoln elicit specific and strong associations for viewers. For white and Black Americans, his leadership during the U.S. Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved people are often the most likely connections. For Indigenous Americans, however, Lincoln is linked to his role in the displacement and massacre of Native populations in the southwest and western United States. Despite these stark differences, it is Lincoln’s identity as the great unifier or emancipator that has remained dominant over time and, like in the case of the Proud Raven totem pole, served to further obscure already marginalized histories of Indigenous peoples. Why do you think this is the case? If you were going to write a label for the Proud Raven pole at Saxman Park, how would you explain to visitors the particular role and power of the image of Abraham Lincoln without decentering the history and the meaning of the pole for the Gannax.ádi clan? To support your thinking process, explore more of the history of the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln and his legacy, and dig deeper into the history of the Proud Raven totem pole (in chapter 5 of Emily L. Moore, Proud Raven, Panting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal totem parks (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018). 

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.