Books tell a story, carvings on a wall tell a story, and in Saxman Native Village in Ketchikan, Alaska, totem poles tell a story documented by the early Native Americans.
Though totem poles are prevalent throughout southwest Alaska, Saxman Native Village is known for having the largest collection of standing totem poles. These were first created by local Native Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists (the three main indigenous groups in the Ketchikan Indian Community), who brilliantly carved symbols into red cedar logs from the Tongass Rainforest.
Those symbols illustrated on the totem poles included animals and mythological creatures that were believed to have spiritual significance. They watch over the families, clans and tribes of those who observe the belief of Totemism. The symbols represent clans, with the two most prominent clans belonging to the eagle and raven. While the raven is represented by a straight beak, the eagle has a curved one.
Eagle and Raven Symbolism
Eagle: The eagle is seen as an intelligent and resourceful animal. Many believe the eagle to be the ruler of the sky because it can soar higher than other birds. Their feathers are even considered sacred among many tribes. The eagle is seen as a divine spirit, representing sacrifice, intelligence, renewal, courage, illumination of spirit, healing, creation, freedom, and risk-taking. The eagle is a powerful symbol of prestige, and also denotes peace and friendship. Many ancient tribes also believed the bird could transform into a human.
Raven: Despite being perceived as corrupt and hungry, the raven is one of the most commonly used symbols in Alaska, and is the subject of more than 90 stories carved on totem poles. One of which explains the origins of the sun and moon. The Tlingit tradition tells how, long ago, the world was covered in darkness:
“Raven grew tired of stumbling around and went in search of light. As he came near the house of an old chief, he overheard the chief talking with his daughter. Raven learned that the chief kept all the light of the world locked away in a box.” This is when Raven planned to steal that box. He transformed himself into a hemlock needle and landed in the river. It was then when the chief’s daughter unknowingly drank him and became pregnant. She later gave birth to a son — Raven’s human form.
The chief loved his new grandson and would have done anything for him. One day, Raven saw the box and begged to play with it. The chief refused, but as any kid would do, he cried, screamed, and even threw tantrums. Eventually, the chief gave him the box, even though it was the one thing he did not want to share.
Raven instantly changed back to his bird form, carried the box through the smoke hole inside the house, and placed the light in the sky as the sun, the moon and the stars.
Explore the rich living culture of southeast Alaska’s Native Americans, where more than a sixth of the city’s population is Alaskan native or American Indian.