The Saxman Native Village
Ketchikan, AK

July 4th, 2002

One day we wandered down to the south end of the island to the famous Saxman Native Village. Native art and culture flourishes in southwest Alaska due to the large population of Native Alaskans.  The three indigenous Pacific Northwest Indians tribes are the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.  These tribes have existed in the area for over 10,000 years, making them some of the oldest civilizations in the world.  The tribes were broken up into clans, or extended families which all lived under one roof called a longhouse.  In front of each longhouse was erected a totem pole.  These giant cedar carvings are believed to be more of a historical and political statement than a religious offering. Each figure represents a specific thought or statement. As in the case of most North American Indians, these tribes did not have an established written language. Much of the knowledge gathered about the ancient times has been passed down by word of mouth until recorded by European explorers in the late 1800s.  They wrote that the totem pole identified previous clans, or parent clans, and were sometimes erected to mark clan boundaries. Thousands of these ornate structures were carved over the centuries only to be abandoned. The totem park at Saxman Village boasts of the largest collection of totem poles in North America.  We arrived on a rainy day, as are almost all the days in this part of the country. The access road to the actual park is lined with an assortment of carved poles.  Each one uniquely carved from top to bottom.  They have been brought here from the island and lands nearby.  There are standard shapes such as the Raven, which is revered as the most sacred animal who is responsible for the creation of the Earth.  Salmon, bears and eagles are commonly displayed. Each is similar but none are exactly the same.  They were carved with the most basic of tools so the cuts are rough.  This gives the shapes a rustic, crude look which just adds to their appearance.  The area was originally a Tlingit village established 1894, later named for school teacher Samuel Saxman, one of the three men lost in Dec. of 1896 while scouting for a new location for the people of Tongaso and Cape Fox villages.  At the far end of the street leading to the poles was a highly decorated longhouse.  Several times a day, the Indians put on a show in the longhouse.  Our timing was off on this day and we missed the show.  Also located on the ground is one of the few totem pole carving centers in existence.  Here we watched world famous carver Nathan Jackson and his apprentice Tim Long who has worked on poles for the last 5 years.  Southeast Alaska is the northern end of the totem pole region.  Western Red Cedar is the reason.  It is the sole source of these magnificent creations and resides only in a thin strip of land along the Pacific coastal area of Canada and the northern US.  For the most part, all the work is done with non-power hand tools. Wooden mallets and chisels are lined up on the work bench. Although the structures are huge the cuts are small and highly controlled.  The smallest amount of wood is removed with each turn of the blade.  It can take over a year to finish one of the larger pieces.  The finest artists  can demand as much as a thousand dollars a foot for their work.  For those who would see more of these most unusual art works, there is Totem Bight State Park at the other end of the island where there is another native community house and a second collection of poles

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