As a librarian I always enjoy it when a patron asks a question about something that relates to my own personal interests. Recently I helped a patron with a question about totem poles. In 2004 I accepted a an interim library job at a small college in Sitka, located on the coast of Alaska, a decision that turned out to be a tremendous adventure. One unique Alaskan adventure I was able to experience was the placement of a new totem pole. Carved in Sitka National Park, the entire town was invited to the totem pole raising ceremony, where, after several ceremonial rites including a formal naming ceremony, adults manned the ropes on the sidelines which helped to guide the pole as children from the town tugged on the two long ropes which pulled it up and into place.
It is said that the most important person or object on a totem pole is the one that is at the base. This is an important distinction between Western and Native culture (since we usually think that “low man on the totem pole” designates a low status). There is a pole in a main square in downtown Sitka which illustrates this cultural difference. At the time this pole was constructed, the govenor insisted that he be placed at the top. Since the object of ridicule is always at the top the carvers were happy to grant the governor his wish!
The University of Alaska at Anchorage has an excellent website including an authoritative article on totem poles as well as a wealth of information about Alaskan history and culture. A trip to Alaska is always unforgettable; check the library for travel guides (917.98) and information on it’s colorful history (979.8) as well as the dvd aisle for a taste of the state’s spectacular beauty. And for more pictures of totem poles, look for The Most Striking of Objects: Totem Poles of Sitka National Park in our Government documents collection.