Carving, as an art form, reflects the close ties all Native cultures maintain with the environment. The materials used come from the land, and the images usually represent animals, spirits or places.
The Tlingit are master carvers. Their art is displayed most prominently on totem poles, but can be seen on canoes, wooden tools, ceremonial staffs, rattles, masks, boxes used for cooking and storage, and screens used to divide living quarters in a house.
The Tlingit carve totems on poles for a variety of purposes. Totem poles in front of houses are like family crests and typically identify the mother’s clan. Totem poles are also carved to tell a story, to commemorate an event or to honor a deceased loved one or chief.
Beginning in Ketchikan and extending north throughout many of the communities along the Inside Passage, totem art can be found in galleries and ancient totems tower among the trees and rest in museums. Sitka is home to Sitka National Historic Park, which boasts a collection of totems near the visitor center and along the walking trail. Ketchikan has the Totem Heritage Center, which houses 33 totems retrieved from deserted Tlingit and Haida villages. The Center is a national landmark and is the largest such collection in the United States.
The Inupiaq are known for their smaller carvings, frequently of animals or birds, made of ivory, whale bone, baleen and soapstone while the Yup’ik make lovely dolls and carved miniatures representing various aspects of Eskimo life.