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Historic Totem To Return to Kasaan

130 year old totem was in Los Angeles, Colorado for 116 years



October 17, 2022

(SitNews) - More than a half century ago a Haida totem that was carved in the 1800s was laying forgotten in a lumber yard in Los Angeles. It was going to be turned to sawdust, but then fate intervened and it spent the rest of the 20 th century in the courtyard of a Colorado museum.

Now it is coming home to Kasaan.

The pole, a 53-foot house pole with ties to Haida chief Son-i-Hat (Saanaxeit), will be welcomed back to Kasaan with a ceremony on November 5, according to Organized Village of Kasaan Tribal Chief Mike Jones.

Son-i-Hat (Saanaxeit) Pole
Photo Courtesy MIKE JONES ©

"We are at a time of a new beginning here," Jones said recently. "We have never had anything repatriated to our village before, let alone a massive frontal house pole."

The totem pole was part of more than 200 tons of Haida cultural items that were shipped south in 1906 to take part in a national Indian Crafts Exhibition in Los Angeles. The exhibition was sponsored by California railroad magnate Henry Huntington and featured hundreds of Native Americans from dozens of tribes. It was held at an open space, now Lincoln Park, near downtown Los Angeles.

The totem pole, and the long house that it fronted, were among the highlights of the exhibition. It was featured on a page of the exhibition pamphlet

"Chief Son-i-Hat's house and Totem-Pole, by far the most historic in Alaska, were purchased and brought here at great expense, and form part of the Exhibition," the 1906 pamphlet read. "This Totem-Pole is the first and only one ever sold and taken from Alaska to stay."

The "famous Totem Pole" was also used for advertising flyers that were produced by the Tilton's Trolley Company which offered trolley trips throughout the Los Angeles basin.

Chief Son-i-Hat and several members of his family accompanied the pole and the other items to the exhibition. Despite his age, approximately late 70s, Son-i-Hat remained at the exhibition for about two years. He returned to Kasaan and died in 1912.

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Jan Fisher has researched the history of the pole for the "Haida Genealogy" website. She said the pole was connected to a long house called the "Adolescent Girl House" which was dismantled and shipped to California. Fisher says that the entire collection was sold to the exhibition for $1,800 ($66,000 in 2022 dollars) in 1906 and left Kasaan in April on the steamship Alki, arriving in Seattle in early May. It was transferred to the steamer Umatilla where it was taken to San Francisco and then on to Los Angeles.

Along the way, the voyage made news, including in Seattle, where newspapers commented on the Son-i-Hat's age and blindness. Approximately a dozen other Haida acccompanied Son-i-Hat to Los Angeles, according to Fisher.

"By December,  they reassembled the house, raised the pole, and took up residence," Fisher wrote in August, 2022 on the website. "Saanaxeit, according to his son James Peele, stayed in California for about two years staging dances. giving speeches about the ways of the Haida and demonstrating Haida culture."

Fisher said that the images on the pole have been reviewed by Haida carver TJ Young who has identified two watchmen, a bear, a bear cub or frog, raven, a bird and a beaver. She said that carvers are looking forward to examining it in person when it arrives in Kasaan.

It's not clear what happened to the cultural items after the exhibition closed, but Jones believes the pole ended up in the hands of a collector. In 1951, it was found in a lumber yard owned by Joshua Marks, a well-known building constructor who built the famous Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

Native art expert Ralph Altman convinced the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center to acquire the pole.  Jones said the pole was taken to Colorado Springs and put in the center's courtyard where it remained until 2006 when it was taken down to be refurbished. At that point,  the center decided it would be unsafe to put it back up.

Not long afterwards, the center contacted Kasaan, but there wasn't any local money available to bring the totem back. It remained in storage for the next decade. Jones returned to Kasaan three years ago and immediately looked into raising the money for the repatriation.

He said he worked with Richard Rinehart, Kevin Schaefer and Elias Duran of the Tlingit Haida Central Council and Matthew Carle of Sealaska. Sealaska eventually came up with the $69,000 needed. The pole will be trucked from Colorado to Seattle and put on a barge for Ketchikan and then Kasaan.

Jones said the pole is probably not in good enough shape to erect again, but that at least part of the pole will be the centerpiece of a cultural center that Kasaan hopes to build in the next couple of years.

In the meantime, there will be a 1 pm celebration in the community on Nov. 5, 2022, to commemorate the pole's return.



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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