Explore Alaska Native Culture

Kichx̱áan was originally a summer fish camp used by Alaska Native peoples, and Tlingit culture remains a major influence in present-day Ketchikan. Perhaps the most noticeable symbols of traditional heritage are the totem poles, which tell stories of people, places and events. Ketchikan has more totem poles than anywhere else in Alaska, ranging from 19th century poles from now-abandoned villages to more recent carvings. Take a self-guided or guided walking tour. As you look at the totems, look for symbols of the raven and eagle moieties, which represent matrilineal groups, as well as different clan symbols such as the frog, bear and orca whale. The poles’ formline design and black, red and blue/green pigments blend in to the region’s rainforest environment yet stand out as sentinels of community and culture.

Wander amid the totems and view traditional items such as baskets, masks and ceremonial items at the Totem Heritage Center, located just outside of downtown Ketchikan. Totem Row Park in nearby Saxman includes more than 20 totems, some of which were restored or replicated from older totems by master carvers hired by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Be sure to see Chief Kashakes House, a historic Tlingit clan house and first structure built in Saxman, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Or, imagine traditional life in the replica of a traditional clan house in Totem Bight State Historical Park, 10 miles south of Ketchikan. And, as you see large cedar logs along the shore, think of the traditional carvers and see if you can see your own totem in the wood grain.

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