Imagine Prince of Wales Island as it was centuries ago: a land with a thousand miles of shoreline, where scattered Alaska Native villages settle into the trees behind sloping beaches, wood smoke rising from large communal longhouses, totem poles looking down on proud dugout canoes resting above the tide. Some village residents are weaving tree fibers into baskets and hats and others are busy putting up salmon, berries and other natural foods.
Archaeologists have dated artifacts found on this island to as much as 10,300 years before the present. Natives’ oral literature tells of creation and outlines a civilization in balance with nature in this prolific place.
Tlingit people were first to settle Prince of Wales Island. This wide-ranging Southeast Alaskan tribe was adept at trade with inland Natives and with coastal Haida and Tsimshian peoples. Haidas are thought to have established permanent settlements on Prince of Wales Island in the 1700s; they came from Haida Gwaii in present-day British Columbia.
Alaskan Haidas merged five villages at Hydaburg in 1911. Kasaan is the northernmost Haida community and dates from 1902. Natives of this region lived in family and clan groups and took summer’s plenty for winter’s provisions. They gathered each winter in village clan houses. Tall totem poles faced the sea and told creation myths, recounted historical events or honored ancestors.
The First Peoples of this region thrived amid bountiful natural resources, the most precious of them the salmon that sustained the Alaska Native way of life. Riches available in minerals, furs and timber would later attract newcomers to the region—but Native ways persisted and now are themselves attracting visitors who want to see a unique culture.
Klawock Totem Park displays 21 restored or replicated poles from the village of Tuxekan. Hydaburg and Kasaan also present significant totem pole collections. All of the island’s tribes welcome visitors and residents to enjoy their culture, where one can see young and old singing, dancing and drumming to keep their culture vital.
A pole carved in durable cedar might stand a century. Many poles seen today were carved in the 1930s by artists in the Civilian Conservation Corps replicating village poles to preserve a legacy. Contemporary poles are carved on commission and tell new tales. More than 10 poles have been raised in Klawock in a decade, including the Veteran's Memorial Pole which was raised in August of 2018. Hydaburg has replicated its entire totem park since 2009.
Young carvers continue a world-renowned tradition. When Native artists are at work in carving sheds, visitors are welcome to stop in and discover a rich art form firsthand. Traditionally, poles carved in cedar were commissioned to display success or to celebrate important events. To learn about seeing carvers at work, call ahead. Hydaburg Cooperative Association 907-285-3665. Kasaan Cultural Campus 907-542-2230. City of Klawock 907-755-2261
Pictured to the left is Master Carver, the late Stan Marsden, working on the Unity Pole which can be viewed in Hydaburg.