Totem Bight State Historical Park – Ketchikan, Alaska - Atlas Obscura
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Ketchikan, Alaska

Totem Bight State Historical Park

This historic collection of Native Alaskan artifacts was resurrected through a partnership between the WPA and tribal artisans.  

Many museums display pieces of Native American culture as things to be seen and pondered over, but the Totem Bight State Historical Park presents Native Alaskan culture as something to be lived and explored in the three-dimensional here-and-now. 

Built on an old native fishing ground in Southeast Alaska just outside Ketchikan, the park offers a complete recreation of a 19th century Native Alaskan village, whose original totem poles and traditional structures were abandoned, left to be reclaimed by nature. In 1938, the U.S. Forest Service utilized funds allocated to the Civilian Conservation Corps (a.k.a. “CCC”) to hire skilled carvers from among the older, indigenous population to salvage and reconstruct the remaining cedar monuments from within the forests. In the process, a whole new generation was trained in an ancient tradition, while either preserving or duplicating precious specimens that would have been lost forever.

By the time of its completion in 1940, the park was scattered with 15 totem poles and a massive clan house, all of which were built under the supervision of Alaskan architect Linn Forrest. The clan house alone could hold an estimated 30-50 people, and features a large, central fireplace and carved posts supporting the roof beams symbolizing the exploits of Duktoothl, a “a man of Raven phratry wearing a weasel skin hat who showed his strength by tearing a sea lion in two.” Across the grounds, the Raven appears repeatedly, as tribal lore suggests he is responsible for bringing the sun to the universe. Accompanying the Raven are stylized representations of the Eagle, Bear and Wolf, Killer Whale, and Beaver, all of which carry powerful significance in Tlingit mythology.

That said, with such cultural significance at every turn, the one element at Totem Bight that stands above the rest is that of a man getting his hand chomped on by an angry mystical creature. Though surely there is a deeper meaning to this totem pole, what can be gathered by the human’s expression alone is enough to elicit a chuckle from most laymen.

Know Before You Go

Free admission, open daily 7am to 6pm.