July 5, 1997

Lincoln Totem Pole

The upper portion of the Lincoln Totem Pole on display at the Alaska State Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska State Museum)

One totem, many stories

Lincoln pole symbolizes the clash of visions, emotions at the heart of Indian country

By Tom Kizzia
Daily News reporter

''I want to take you back to why we have Abraham Lincoln on top of our totem poles,'' said the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, had come to the Alaska Native Brotherhood hall in Juneau to talk about Indian country. His audience was the 30-member board of the Alaska Federation of Natives, meeting in February to discuss the implications of the Venetie decision.

An outspoken opponent of tribal sovereignty, Taylor acknowledged that some fellow legislators considered his visit a trip ''into the lion's den.'' He was quick to reassure his listeners about his good intentions, noting he had been adopted into a Southeast Eagle clan and given a name that meant ''Helping Hand.''

''My heart is very saddened,'' Taylor told his audience. ''It's hurting because of a divisiveness that's running through my family of dear and close friends.''

Despite the Legislature's $1 million appropriation to fight Indian country in court, which Taylor supported, most of the Native leaders from around Alaska listened politely.

But Tlingit delegates from Southeast Alaska, the land of the totem poles, stirred uneasily at the mention of the famous top-hatted totem, a more powerful symbol than the senator imagined of the cultural divide in Alaska over Indian country.

Here is the story Taylor told:

In 1867, shortly after the purchase of Alaska, a U.S. revenue cutter patrolling Southeast waters overtook a war canoe of Tlingits anxiously fleeing another group of Tlingits, the predatory Eagle clan. The Indians feared being captured and enslaved. The captain of the cutter kindly explained to the fleeing Tlingits that a man named Abraham Lincoln had freed all slaves in America, and they had no need to fear. The Tlingits then settled nearby, in the shadow of a fort, and later erected a totem pole to honor the great American president.

Reading from a 1947 magazine article, Taylor quoted the Tlingit chief's declaration: '' 'Let Tleda, who speaks with his chisel, carve a memorial to this man who has freed us.' ''

Lifting his eyes to the audience, Taylor said: ''I come to you today with the same resolve, the same dedication of purpose that Abraham Lincoln had. He was terribly unpopular in his time, but he kept fighting on because he believed this nation could not be divided against itself.''

The Great Emancipator's belief in equality and freedom was handed on, Taylor continued, to William Paul, the Tlingit civil rights leader who helped found the AFN.

''I have a hard time comprehending what William Paul would be thinking today,'' Taylor said, shaking his head sadly.

Unlike Taylor, some of the Native leaders at the table had known Paul, who died in 1977 at age 91. They, too, may have wondered what he would be thinking.

Paul was the first Alaska Native lawyer, the first Native elected to the Alaska Territorial Legislature and a staunch advocate for Native rights and equality before the law. Near the end of his life, Paul published a long essay that demolished, with meticulous documentation and droll humor, the story that the Lincoln totem celebrated the Great Emancipator.

Anyone seeking to understand why the fight over Indian country is not just a legal dispute, but a power struggle between two views of the world, need look no further than the story of the Lincoln totem.

Like the idea of tribal sovereignty, the story arouses emotions that run deep in Alaska's history, in the profound clash between Native identity and the American dream of assimilation.

For decades, the Lincoln totem has been portrayed in speeches and books as a symbol of the American ideal of equality, which must ultimately rise above tribal traditions. Tlingits familiar with oral tradition, however, have always considered the tale a fable designed to celebrate the coming of white man's justice.

Paul, who spent part of his boyhood on Tongass Island where the 51-foot red cedar pole was carved, traced the popular tale back to a Lincoln Day banquet speech given in the early 1920s in Washington, D.C. The speaker was James Wickersham, a frontier judge and Alaska's territorial delegate to Congress. On his return to Juneau, Wickersham found himself in need of evidence to confirm the Lincoln story, Paul wrote, and asked him for help.

''Wickersham did not ask me to learn the story of the pole, or to determine whether the Lincoln story was correct,'' Paul wrote. ''What he wanted was 'evidence to confirm' -- he had his story and did not want it confused by new facts.''

Paul took apart Wickersham's 1924 account, published by Sunset Magazine, fact by fact -- dismissing his only useful testimony as the account of a confused newcomer from Canada, and citing U.S. Army correspondence to prove that the fugitive Tlingits and emancipated slaves did not scurry to the protective yard of a nearby fort, because their village on Tongass Island was already there when the Americans arrived.

The biggest fallacy of all, Paul said, was the notion that freed Indian slaves and defeated, propertyless fugitives would erect a totem pole, which was the epitome of wealth in Tlingit culture. ''Even had Lincoln freed the Alaska slaves, the slaves did not have the means to erect a monument to him, while the whole idea of such a monument would have been incomprehensible to the deprived 'chiefs and principal men' '' who had lost their slaves.

Paul said he later wished he had spoken against Wickersham's story right away, since it proved to be such an enduring myth, accepted without question by white historians. But when the article appeared, Paul was busy running his first campaign for the Legislature, fighting -- with Wickersham's help -- attempts to block the Native vote by imposing literacy tests like those in the Jim Crow South.

What was the real story of the Lincoln totem? Paul suggested a tactful alternative in his 1971 Alaska Journal essay.

When Paul asked old Tongass Village people about the pole, they told him it was erected by a Raven Clan chief in the 1880s to remind everyone whose ancestors saw the first white man. There were no white men around to use as a model, they said, so the carver used a photograph left by the Army. The carver produced a remarkable likeness in cedar of the 16th president in his top hat, arms akimbo, as he appeared in a famous Matthew Brady photograph taken at Antietam.

Another oral tradition, less polite, holds that the Lincoln totem was a ridicule pole.

Tlingit chieftains sometimes went to great trouble and expense to erect poles commemorating an unpaid debt. It was a way of shaming an enemy, in much the same spirit that service station owners today post the names of customers who write bad checks on signboards along the highway.

Rosita Worl, a Tlingit anthropologist and head of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, said oral tradition says the Lincoln pole was carved by chiefs angry about having their slaves taken without compensation.

''Slaves were property, and property was prime. When slaves were freed, a debt was created,'' Worl said. ''You don't hear much about it being connected, though, because Tlingits are not proud that they had slaves.''

Anthropologists have said as many as one out of three Indians living among the tribes of Southeast Alaska was a slave. Some had an eye plucked out and an ear perforated to mark them as property, like Sah Quah, a Haida who appeared before the U.S. District Court in Sitka in 1886, asking to be set free.

The federal attorney representing the Tlingit slave owner was a Virginian and former Confederate officer. He argued that Alaska was Indian country, where the U.S. Constitution didn't apply to internal tribal matters.

Judge Lafayette Dawson disagreed. Later federal court rulings would refute him, but that didn't matter: more than two decades after Abraham Lincoln's death, Dawson formally outlawed slavery in Alaska.

Taylor was right, in a way, that it took U.S. justice to free Alaska's Indians. The important gloss on history added by Wickersham's story was to replace a symbol of defiant chiefs with a symbol of grateful Natives.

Today the weathered totem, with Lincoln's top hat worn away, stands in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. The exhibit describes it as the First White Man totem, essentially adopting the version told by Paul. The curator of collections, Steve Henrikson, acknowledges that the unpaid debt over slavery is an equally plausible explanation.

''To go back to the original meaning, it's always best to go with the word of the people responsible for its creation,'' Henrikson said.

But Henrikson, like Paul, says the story of Lincoln the Emancipator has proved impossible to stamp out.

''That someone would think this honors the white man -- it's a classic case of things having different meanings to different cultures. White people were so sure they were treating Native people right,'' Henrikson said. ''It's exactly the arrogance on the part of Caucasian people that allowed this story to be perpetuated to the present day.''

The AFN meeting was abuzz after Taylor departed. Worl took the floor to say the story they'd just heard was not accepted by the Tlingits. Afterwards, she was asked about the adoption of ''Helping Hand'' by an Eagle clan.

''The clan leaders had a meeting not long ago and were saying, 'Enough of these political adoptions,' '' Worl said. ''It encumbers obligations, and people aren't living up to them.''

Another member of Taylor's audience that day was John Hope, 74, whose father, Andrew, was elected -- 20 years after William Paul -- as the second Native in the territorial legislature.

During the break that followed Taylor's story, Hope smiled and recalled a totem pole in Sitka's National Historic Park with a white man on top. He once heard a guide telling tourists the pole had been erected to honor a revered white man.

Hope's grandmother, who couldn't speak English, had told him the merchant had ''cheated our people out of our money'' and the pole was a ridicule pole.

''The sad thing about that is it takes on a life of its own,'' Hope said. ''We laugh about it among ourselves. But posterity learns the other version.''

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