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.

This totem pole has long been known as the “Lincoln Pole” because of the likeness of Abraham Lincoln at the top; however, according to most Tlingit elders, it was a depiction of the first white man seen in Tlingit territory in the 18th century.  A century later, in the 1880s, a  man from the Gaanax.ádi Raven clan of the Tongass Tlingit commissioned the pole to commemorate his ancestorʼs pride to have seen this first white man (which had become a Gaanax.ádi crest), using a photograph of Abraham Lincoln as the model for a generic white man. It is important not only for these various readings of the crests but also because it claims Gaanax.ádi clan territory before the first white men came to their shores—territory that Tlingit men who were recarving the pole in the 1940s were trying to assert to the U.S. government as their sovereign lands.

Additional resources:

Emily Moore, Proud Raven, Painting Wolf: Carving Alaska’s New Deal Totem Parks (University of Washington Press, 2020).

Saxman Totem Park

New Deal projects in Saxman

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.