Myths and Legends in Ketchikan

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MV Kennicott  docked in Ketchikan, AK

The Ferry docked at 8 am in Ketchican, Ak, We hurried up our morning activities and I set foot on Alaskan soil for the first time! We had breakfast at a restaurant across from the dock and then set off to see Totem Bright which is about 8 miles from Ketchican. It is a State Historical Park. In 1938 the US Forest Service began a program aimed at salvaging and reconstructing the large cedar totems left by the Natives as they moved to communities where work was available. The villages and totems they left behind became overgrown  by forests. The Forest Service used the Civilian Conservation Corps funds to hire skilled carvers from among the Natives. An Alaskan Architect, Linn Forrest supervised the project of constructing a model Native village. Every attempt was made to use traditional means in copying the fragments of totems that were left. Native artisans were hired, traditional tools were used and paints created from natural substances such as clam shells, graphite, lichen and salmon eggs were supplemented by modern paints

Totem Bright contains beautiful Native totems, and a Clan House. Clan Houses were community houses where 30 – 50 people lived usually of the same clan. Representing those built in the early 19th century, the house at Totem Bright is all open space with one common fireplace. The totems at each corner on the supporting beams were colorful symbols of the ancestor who showed his strength by tearing a Sea Lion in two with his hands.

Understanding the totems is a process of identifying the symbols used and the culture of the tribe itself. The Tlingit and Haida people who carved totems were matrilineal tribes meaning that the clan understood its identity by tracing the family of the mother. The Tlingit and Haida were divided into matrilineal groups called “moieties”. The divisions are represented by the Raven, Eagle and Wolf in totem art. Haida totems have figures overlapping and interconnecting, while the Tlingit figures are more isolated from each other and have a more rounded and sculptured appearance.
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Haida mortuary pole – Thunderbird and Whale

This carving illustrates the mythological conception of thunder. Thunder is created y the beating of the bird’s wings, and lightening by the blink of its eyes. This huge bird lives high on the mountain top. The whale at the base of the pole symbolizes the mountain top where the bird rests before devouring his prey. It is said that whale bones may be found on many mountain tops that have been carried there in ages past.  (Interpretation taken from Totem Bright interpretive guide)

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Kaat’s Bear Wife

The bear and tracks on this pole, copied from a pole on Tongass Island, symbolize Kaat’s bear wife. Kat is a character out of Tlingit mythology known across the country and claimed by many as an ancestor. he hunted grizzly bears for a living. After his death, his wife retreated into the hill country with songs of sorrow. The pole was carved to commemorate his bear wife. In 1985, carver israel Shotridge replaced the bear portion of the pole.   (Information taken from Totem Bright interpretive guide)


Totem Bright setting along the coast, Entrance to the Clan House, Totem in the Clan House

The early missionaries misinterpreted the totem as objects of worship and often destroyed them as idols. Totems, however, were not worshipped; they were silent storytellers that helped people remember since there was no written language. They are a part of the oral tradition of tribal culture.

It rained on us the entire time we were off ship, often blowing rain in our faces! This part of the Alaska coast is actually considered a rain forest receiving over 100 inches of rain each year! Lush and green, walking in the area around Totem Bright was a wonderful experience that I would not have missed.  Getting back to our ship home we all made good use of the hot showers!

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Three inch rope covered with moss