From Cape Fox, Alaska to Cornell University:
The changing meanings of a totem pole

This paper was written by Frederic W. Gleach, of Cornell University,
and presented at the American Society for Ethnohistory annual meeting, 1995.

Please feel free to link to this page for teaching or other informational purposes,
but please do not cite, reproduce, or otherwise distribute without the author's permission.

To help prevent this paper being used improperly, certain references have been omitted.
These can be supplied on request.


In July 1899 the Harriman Alaska Expedition stopped during its return to Seattle at an abandoned Tlingit village. They removed many artifacts, which entered a variety of public and private collections. These artifacts came to have meaning in two cultural systems: that of the Cape Fox Tlingits, but also that of the American academic community. This paper explores these two sets of meanings, the historical situations that produced them, and the ways such meanings are represented in physical objects, focusing on a totem pole that was taken to Cornell University, and has twice been recreated by the Cape Fox Tlingits.

   The research I am reporting here began while I was a visitor at Cornell University in 1993-94, when I learned from the curator of the anthropology collections there that the university possessed a totem pole--better called a memorial pole, but I will use the popular term here--"collected" around the turn of the century. I began research in the university archives, established that the pole had come from a Tlingit village, and continued the research, also enlisting the help of Andie Palmer, who had done research in BC and Alaska, and who, I knew, would soon be returning to the area. In this paper, I will discuss some of the issues of meaning as they pertain to this object. Andie has been of great assistance in this project, but ultimate responsibility for the interpretations here rests on my shoulders.

   In 1899 the railroad magnate, Edward Harriman, took his family and a collection of eminent scientists on a trip to Alaska--what became known as the Harriman Alaska Expedition (Goetzmann and Sloan 1982). His reasons were several, and included taking an educational family vacation; looking into the possibilities of extending a railroad line across the Bering Strait to Russia; hunting for Kodiak bears; and furthering American scientific knowledge of this relatively unknown territory. To this end he had a ship outfitted especially for the voyage, and invited many of the most prominent and up-and-coming naturalists, artists, writers, and scholars in the country; he provided their transportation to and from Seattle and all needs on the voyage. Established members of the expedition included C. Hart Merriam, head of the Biological Survey of the USDA; naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs; and artists Robert Swain Gifford and Frederick Dellenbaugh; two who later gained fame were photographer Edward Curtis and ethnographer George Bird Grinnell. Cornell was represented among the party by the young ornithological artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and Dean of Forestry, Bernard Fernow (Swanson 1982).

   They sailed from Seattle in late spring 1899, and traveled as far as the Bering Straits before returning. Along the way they visited natural areas wherever possible, giving the scientists opportunities to collect specimens and make observations. They also stopped at towns, including Sitka and Juneau, Indian and Inuit settlements, and the mission settlement at New Metlakatla. Harriman killed his Kodiak bear, in a contrived hunt where the bear was driven toward a protected position where he lay in wait (**).

   On the way back, Dellenbaugh learned from a gold-miner of a deserted Indian village, and matching his sketch-map to the navigational charts--where the site was labeled "Cape Fox Village," as it still is on USGS maps (1:250 000 series, Ketchikan, N551539 W1310349)--he determined that it was not far out of their way. Fascinated by the idea of this "ghost town," the expedition decided to visit, and arrived July 25, 1899. This stop was an important one for the expedition's token ethnographer, the young George Bird Grinnell, who based his description of Tlingit villages largely on Cape Fox, and includes a number of drawings as well as photographs (Grinnell 1995:145-52). Fuertes described the approach in a letter:

on the beach "Here we are, way down within a couple of days or less of Seattle. We stopped at Juneau for half a day to coal & H2O, & this PM stopped at Fox Point & went ashore at a Tlingkit Indian Village, which showed from the water only a bare beach, flatly gabled roofs above tall rank weeds, & 24 immense totem poles . . . & when we got near found it to look deserted--& so it really was, tho' full of a lot of interesting and curious 'remains' of a past epoch of prosperity. It was the most curious place, and about the most interesting, in many ways, that we have yet seen. The tribe had moved away, apparently, about 8 or 9 years ago--leaving some houses in good repair,--others in bad decay -- but a lot of remarkable totem poles and head gears--masks, boxes, etc (tho' all the necessaries were gone) which we have been bringing aboard most of the afternoon & evening, and shall do more tomorrow. I took many photos, & have hopes that they'll be good." [Fuertes 1899]

There is little written history, but apparently the village had been abandoned in 1894, when the Cape Fox Tlingits and some Tongass Tlingits joined in a new settlement at Saxman, where a school and Presbyterian church would be provided (Cape Fox Corporation 1980:2). Today, Saxman is probably best know for its Totem Park, but it is also the home of the Cape Fox Corporation, the descendant polity of the Cape Fox village, organized under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1973.

   The next day, Fuertes (1899) wrote: "We are still at the deserted village, & have spent most of the day towing totem poles aboard, & Dr. Fernow has overseen the bringing of two fine ones for the Museum at [Cornell]." They had first thought the poles were too large to take, but Fernow, the ingenious German forester, demonstrated how it could be done, and the shiphands were put to work. A satirical poem composed by one of the party captures the tone of the moment:

[It is perhaps worth noting that Fernow's approach to forestry was apparently also exploitative. At the Cornell forests he used "extra-heavy timber cutting methods" that were so severe that nearby landowners felt "their forest properties were being depreciated greatly" by proximity. The governor of New York settled matters by terminating the appropriation for the College of Forestry at Cornell in 1903 (Illick 1961:9). The Fernow papers at Cornell seem to have no information on the Harriman Expedition, unless it is buried in the voluminous correspondence files, which are sorted only by correspondent.]

   Two poles were taken for the California Academy of Sciences, two for the Field Museum in Chicago; one went to the University of Washington, where it was later joined by one originally given to the University of Michigan; two went to the Peabody, at Yale, and one went to Cornell (Goetzmann and Sloan 1982:168, Cole 1985:309, n.54). I have found no mention of what became of the second of the "two fine ones for the Museum at [Cornell]" that Fuertes mentioned. Harriman took two large carved bears from a grave for his own collection, presumably to complement the Kodiak bear he had shot. Merriam took a Chilkat blanket he found draped over another grave (Goetzmann and Sloan 1982:168). Scores of other objects were taken, as attested by photographs of loot piled up on the beach waiting to be loaded onto the ship.

loot on the beach

   None of the scientists raised a voice against this looting. Some did not participate, and Muir was displeased by it--on his previous trip to Alaska he had been shocked by the cutting down of a totem pole by an archaeologist (Muir 1915:74-75)--but the looting proceeded, and the expedition returned with its specimens. There were Federal laws at the time prohibiting the removal of totem poles that were "in use by the natives for religious worship" (Anonymous 1899b) but the removal of goods from this abandoned village was evidently legal.

   Douglas Cole has documented the appropriation of art and artifacts from the northwest coast in his book Captured Heritage (1985); this was neither an isolated act nor one considered dishonorable by many people. It was felt that the native cultures were disappearing, and the preservation of their languages, traditions, arts, etc. was the best that could be done, in the face of inevitable progress. These cultures did not die out, of course. Indeed, some of the items that were preserved in museums have regained significance to the descendants of those who made them--and some are being physically returned. The pole I want to focus on here, though, has not been well preserved. Let me briefly discuss the meaning of totem poles in the Tlingit culture, and then return to this pole from Cape Fox.

   In the United States, from the time you are a child you learn of totem poles: that they "tell a story," or represent a family or ancestor. We can learn to "read" a totem pole, recognizing the animals by their characteristic traits. But in their original cultural contexts, totem poles do not simply represent these characters; they memorialize and physically embody a whole complex set of social relationships. A totem pole tells a story, or identifies a house or clan, or commemorates an event, only if you already know what it means. A pole is not simply carved and erected; the erection is accompanied by a ceremonial gathering in which people are brought together to witness the act, hear the songs and stories, and participate in the commemoration and creation of this set of social relationships. The literature abounds with contradictory readings of individual totem poles; despite their representational nature, the carvings are not unambiguous in meaning--and often that ambiguity is an important part of the meaning, as transformation is an important process in the world of the northwest coast. The meaning resides in the participating community, not exclusively in the carved figures, which merely give a somewhat more permanent, more substantial, notation of meaning. Poles are renewed or replaced when necessary, keeping the meanings alive by rebuilding the social relationships--re-production, without the pejorative quality associated with the term in the western world of the art market, collector, and museum. There are thus elements of both continuity and change in these meanings, despite their being embodied in the relatively permanent medium of carved wood.

   While it might seem to be related, this is different from what Arjun Appadurai referred to as The Social Life of Things (1986), where he discussed the movement of commodities in the social realm. Appadurai's "social life" refers only to the ways objects are employed in social relations. A commodity does not participate; it can be bought, sold, traded, given, taken, destroyed or created, but it doesn't do any of these things on its own; they are done to it. A totem pole may not be animate in the sense we usually conceive, but it is, in a sense, a living thing. It participates in the community. It embodies the honor and social relationships active in its creation and erection. When a totem pole is removed from its community, when it ceases to participate in the social networks that are its meaning, then it is reduced to being simply a commodity, a representation.

   The pole that ended up at Cornell University illustrates the importance of these social relationships from two perspectives: that of the pole, and that of the human community that created it. Reading the pole is far from straightforward. The top figure is Beaver, but not portrayed in the usual way, with his tail curled up in front of his belly. Below Beaver is a bird that has been variously identified as Raven, Owl, Eagle, and Thunderbird. The Halibut is clear, but is the bottom figure Bear, or a person?

in situ

   Placing the pole back in the context of Cape Fox village may help in its interpretation. Cape Fox was founded in the early nineteenth century by members of Eagle-Leg clan, a Nex?adi group. Their original house was Eagle-Claw House, but by the late nineteenth century several other houses had split from this (**). The Cornell totem pole was erected around the mid-1880s by Chief Kashakes, head of one of the houses that derived from Eagle-Claw House. According to Marius Barbeau (**), who interviewed him in 1939 about this pole, Kashakes was of Salmon-Eater clan, and had erected the pole in memory of a brother. The ancestral myths of the Salmon-Eater clan, found among the Haidas and Tsimshians as well as the Tlingits, involve an Eagle and a Halibut, and there are several other Eagle-Halibut poles associated with this clan at other villages. A later episode in the story involved a beaver--in some accounts named Beaver-Eagle--and he became a clan emblem. Reading this pole, then, the top figure is the clan-figure Beaver, depicted here with his tail extending behind, in the position representing the Beaver-Dam House. Below are the Eagle and Halibut figures associated with the origin of the Salmon-Eater clan.

   But what about the bottom figure? It appears to be a bear, or possibly a bear transforming into a man. But Bear doesn't figure into the recorded versions of this story. The most visible house at Cape Fox at the end of the nineteenth century was Brown Bear House, with its painted front, and this was also related to the original Eagle-Claw House. Like Kashakes's house, Brown Bear House also had an Eagle-and-Beaver pole, a mark of this original relationship. Perhaps there was a kinship tie here. But because of an historical complication, this may have to remain at the level of speculation.

   At some time after the Cape Fox Tlingits relocated to Saxman, most likely in the 1930s, they began to recreate their old totem poles. Some of the old poles were retrieved from Cape Fox, but replacements were also carved for several that had been taken by the Harriman expedition. The Cornell pole is one of those replaced, and the Saxman version is still standing in front of the Beaver House of Kashakes there (**). But when the new pole was carved, the bottom figure from the original was omitted. There were several other changes--for instance, Eagle is not grasping Halibut's tail in the later pole--and the carving was generally less detailed, but the deletion of the lowest figure on the pole is a major change. Perhaps the social relationships being marked had changed over the intervening years and relocation so that the Bear figure was no longer necessary. But another possibility must be considered: that in the absence of the original pole, it had been forgotten. The photographs taken by Curtis may have been available to the carvers of the replacement; but even if so, the vegetation grown up along the beach had obscured the lowest figures of most of the poles, and only the top three of this pole could be seen to be copied. There seems to have been a certain degree of male-female complementarity in the memory of associated stories and the designing, carving, and commissioning of poles, and this relationship may have been in flux due to the actions of the church. It may have been lack of input from the appropriate women that was responsible for the changes seen.

   But these questions can only be answered by further fieldwork--if they can be answered at all. What we know is that this pole, and thus the social relationships in which it was implicated, were sufficiently important to Kashakes and his lineage that he had a new one carved and erected, some years later, even after the original had been taken from his old village. The forms of relationships involving totem poles have changed over the last seventy or so years, but this pole remains important to his descendants at Saxman: another copy was carved in 1989, working from the first copy. The carvers of this second copy, at least, did not know that the original still existed at Cornell, and did not know of the original lowest figure. At least one scholar (**), and possibly others, believes the first copy to be the original, moved from Cape Fox to Saxman (this idea seems to have come from an ambiguously worded passage in Barbeau's account).

on campus, 1905 on campus, 1911

   The original does still exist, although its condition is dreadful. It apparently arrived in Ithaca by train in early December 1899, and was installed in the McGraw Hall museum on campus (Anonymous 1899a)--coincidentally the current home of the anthropology department and collections. The short-lived School of Forestry at Cornell was closed in 1903, its appropriation terminated by the governor after complaints about Fernow's over-exploitation of the School's forests, and Fernow left Cornell. The totem pole then occupied at least two outdoor locations on campus until the mid-1920s (von Engeln 1924:17-18), at which time it was put into storage. In 1933-34 it was taken out to the Arnot Forest, then-recently donated to the university. It was repaired, repainted, and erected there by Civilian Conservation Corps workers. Morris Bishop's History of Cornell (1962:454) notes:

The Schwarz Forestors' Lodge was built there, with the Indian totem pole in front. The CCC boys were lodged there during the dark days, and there they labored nobly in elementary forestry. Curious woodland rites were enacted. When a new draft arrived, the oldcomers roused the newcomers at 3:00 AM, gave each a candle, and made them kneel in a circle around the totem pole and solemnly bump their foreheads on the ground. This must have pleased the spirits of the Tlingits.
Needless to say, Bishop's paternalistic attitude is off-target. Such supposedly respectful acts are today increasingly recognized as inappropriate and demeaning (although the practices associated with several sports teams, among other examples, demonstrate that this recognition is by no means universal).

   How did this come to pass? What meanings are revealed by this history? I've already discussed the attitudes of the Harriman expedition members, and the general idea of the value of preserving the material culture of Native Americans prevalent at the turn of the century, but there is clearly a power dynamic in this relationship. The removal of cultural works from Alaska to established American centers of learning and commerce demonstrated U.S. possession and the right to dominate, the control over territory, people, and culture obtained and asserted by the Alaska Purchase. For Harriman, recently risen to control the Union Pacific Railroad through economic manipulations, the domination was based in a material superiority: the ability to harness money and energy and equipment to enact one's will over others with less of this kind of power. For most of the scientists, and the academic community in general, it was rather more subtle. The goals and methods of science were idealized and given precedence over other ways of knowing. Ostensibly, the appropriation of the native culture was for the benefit of all of humanity, for the increase of knowledge and more widespread appreciation. This has, in fact, accrued. But it cannot today be denied that there were also both nationalistic and hegemonic components to this appropriation. Members of the Harriman expedition did not take items to be shared around the world, or even around the country. Harriman took them for his personal use; like his Kodiak bear, a trophy symbolizing his greatness. The others each selected items to return to their own home institutions, enriching a greater body. But these institutions were American, not Russian, French, English, or Canadian, and not international; there were rivalries between them, in many instances quite strong, but nevertheless they were extending American control in an academic sphere, just as Harriman was doing in an economic sphere, supporting the federal government's political control over this new territory.

   In 1899 Cornell, like most universities, had no anthropology department; the program there dates to several decades later. There was no one studying the totem pole placed on campus, no tie to an academic tradition or to a native community; it simply marked Cornell's participation in this economic-academic-nationalistic enterprise to bring back pieces of Alaska to the developed, civilized parts of the U.S. Twenty-five years later, there seems to have been little meaning left to the pole, even as memento; it was put in storage. When the Arnot Forest was acquired, and the lodge built, the pole again was brought in to play a commemorative role, honoring the original, abortive forestry school of Dr. Fernow (Hosmer 1950:28). For the CCC workers, and for generations of 4-H-ers and fraternity members who kept the pole painted out in the forest for several decades, it allowed the creation of a fictive bonding with an equally fictive notion of the "wild Indian."

   The pole has now come to yet another near-forgotten resting place. At some point prior to 1978 the forest manager tired of seeing it outside his window, and had it moved into the forest away from the lodge (Colle 1978:15). By that time Eagle's beak had been replaced with a drooping monstrosity, and his wings had disappeared. Some cult appreciation of Cornell's incongruous totem pole had developed by this time; a brief history was published in the forestry-students' journal (Colle 1978), and four years later the alumni magazine carried a longer but more problematic history (Swanson 1982); an alumna (and granddaughter of Fuertes) replied with a well-thought-out letter (Boynton 1982). Even today, some students hear the story of the university's totem pole, but since it blew over in a storm and shattered several years ago few have seen it. One who heard the story recovered the pieces in 1993, and wrote a senior honors thesis on the pole, suggesting that its conservation might be feasible (Ostman 1994). But she is mistaken. The pole now lies in pieces, in a warehouse near the campus.

now, in pieces

   There are several possibilities for the future being pursued. Information gathered in this project has been shared with members of the family and the Cape Fox Corporation. The pole still exhibits sufficient detail to allow for a much more accurate copy to be carved, should they wish this. There might be a possibility of raising support within the university community to finance the carving of a new copy, particularly if it would reside on campus. Since totem poles are now considered legitimate in the art world, Cornell's art museum might even be interested in housing such a copy. There is also a prominent American Indian Program at Cornell, which would likely be interested in participating in such an enterprise, and a Native-centered residence hall that could provide an alternate home. The ideal situation would see two copies created, one to stand at Cornell and one back in Alaska; perhaps funds could even be raised to establish fellowship and research possibilities.

   This century-old commodified totem pole thus has a possibility to once again participate in the creation of a new set of social relationships, establishing ties between a university in New York and a community of southeastern Alaska. Or the university may not be involved at all, but the details of this original pole, at least, can be returned to the community. Either way, the pole no longer will be simply an appropriated commodity, but will re-enter the social sphere in which it once played a much more active part.


In 2001 a group of scholars and others "retraced" the Harriman Expedition, and as part of that project repatriated some of the materials that had been taken over a century earlier. The remains of the Cornell pole were among those items returned, but the organizers of that project never contacted me despite the accessibility of this paper in the internet; we found about it only through the official posting of notice of repatriation. While I am delighted that the pole has been returned to its home, the way that it was done destroyed the possibility of using it to establish connections between the university and the Native community that I had dreamed of.


The first three photographs were taken by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1899, and are part of the Fuertes Collection in the Division of Rare Books and Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University. More information and larger versions are available here. The remaining photographs are from my own collection; the two black-and-white views on campus were taken by an anonymous Ithaca photographer, and date to about 1905 and 1911; the last photo was taken by me in 1994.


Anonymous. 1899a. "Alaskan Totem Pole." Cornell Daily Sun XX(57):1 (5 December).

---. 1899b. "Totem Pole." The Cornell Era XXXII(8):100 (9 December).

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© 1995, 1998, 2007 Frederic Gleach