In 1926, the village of Kake reluctantly decided under heavy pressure to burn all of the community’s totem poles in the name of “progress.” Decades later, in 1971, Kake elders rose the world’s tallest pole as a reaffirmation of Kake’s cultural roots. In April of this year, a powerful gust of wind snapped the top of the 136-foot-tall pole. Now, the community must decide how to move forward.
Ruth Demmert is a cultural leader and teacher in Kake. In her elementary school classroom, among carved paddles, Tlingit textbooks, and Tlingit worlds sprawled across the whiteboard, we flipped through old newspaper clippings and photo albums stuffed with polaroids. She shares some of the pole’s secrets and explains the significance of this particular totem in helping Kake “recapture its culture.”
Q: How did the pole come to be?
A: They cut Kake’s totem poles down and had a big bonfire and people cried just like losing loved ones all over again. I was not alive at that time, but I have heard the history. There were tears shed but that was their decision to go forward for ‘progress.’
I was really young and I don’t know who all took part in the planning of the pole but I remember my grandparents being together over coffee and my grandfather talking about how it was a shame that all the poles were burned and that we need to replace them because we are losing the culture. We need one put up in place for all those that were lost, that were cut down and burned.
We need to recapture our culture.
So they were talking about a pole being put up to represent all of the clans here in Kake. The killer whale, the shark, the salmon, the frog, the beaver, the eagle, the raven and more.
Q: Who carved the pole?
A: When the tree was found they barged it to Haines and Carl Heinmiller was the master carver. You recognize the name Heinmiller? German! He hired his apprentices and of course, he had the blueprints of what the people wanted on the pole.
And when the pole was finished, probably in 1969, elders from Kake went to see it. I know my grandfathers were up there and their wives and people went to Haines for the busing of the pole. The Kake people blessed it and then they barged it to Japan for the World Fair.
It came to us in 1971. But while in Haines, Carl Heinmiller carved his face on there! But, I don’t think you want to mention that because it will bring back hard feelings, Ha! But he had his face on the pole and people were shocked to see it. A German’s face and he had an eye patch! They did not want him on the pole, it was our pole and he put himself on there so I think they shaved it and carved over his face.
Q: What is the significance of the totem pole to people in Kake today?
A: It brings a lot of tourists to Kake, to us. There are three other really large totem poles that I hear of, I don’t know where they are, but I still consider ours to be the world’s tallest because it is one tree, not two trees put together.
But to me, I always tell the kids that this pole was put up so we can recapture our culture our history, our way of life. I think it is a remembrance for us, it makes us remember the things our families went through, our ancestors went through to get our culture back and this pole was the beginning.
Q: How do you think Kake should move forward now with the broken pole?
A: I think it should be laid to rest just like our ancestors were laid to rest and not just cut down any which way. There needs to be a ceremony for it like laying it down and put back on the earth carefully, with branches like blankets underneath it. There is going to be a lot of tears shed when it does come down.
I really believe there should be one to replace it, I don’t know that it will be just as tall and who knows what crests will go on there, maybe the same crests because they are crests from all our clans here in Kake.
Q: Can you comment more broadly on your time as a cultural leader in Kake, as a teacher?
A: It was still shameful you know, when I started teaching in the ’70s, people were still ashamed to speak Tlingit in public.
Now in the classroom here we teach Tlingit culture and language. Even those that come in blonde and blue-eyed, learning Tlingit culture gives them the respect they need for other cultures. So, I am really glad to have a part in their lives too. I teach respect in this classroom. I used to be a tour guide too and I taught a lot of those people to tell their people back home that we are the same as you. We might speak different, look different but our blood is just as red as anybody else’s and we are survivors we are not just in the museums, we are still here.
I’m working on a song for our dancers, I was given the song from someone in Klawock and reworked it a bit. This will be the dance at the ceremony to take down this pole.
“Our way of life and our language is our strength our inner strength.
The love of our ancestors along with their respect for one another, let it be within us.”
The community of Kake has created a committee to discuss the future of the pole and is currently looking to secure funding for a lowering ceremony.
• Bethany Goodrich is a freelance storyteller and the Communications Coordinator for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. For more, visit www.SustainableSoutheast.net