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Know Timber - Totem Poles: the Past and the Present
Destroyed, stolen, and appropriated through colonization, 20th century Northwest Coast Indigenous people are now reappropriating their artistry into symbols of Native sovereignty.

The totem pole represents an ironic twist to the history of late 19th and early 20th century colonialism in southeast Alaska and coastal British Columbia. As missionaries and government officials tried to destroy Indigenous cultures, and settlers treated those whose lands they stole with appalling racism, the most famous Northwest Coast artistic creation, the totem pole, became increasingly valuable to non-Natives as the last remnants of "disappearing Indians." Museum collectors acquired poles from coastal villages, sometimes paying their owners, sometimes stealing them outright. Tourists on the Inside Passage "Totem Pole Route" flocked to remote communities to see poles in situ. Model totem poles became cherished souvenirs. Fictions about the meaning and purpose of poles flourished. Totem poles became separated from those who made them. Of course the Northwest Coast Indigenous people did not disappear, and in the 20th century Northwest Coast people have reappropriated their totem poles and transformed them into key symbols of Native sovereignty.

Nov 30, 2021 06:00 PM in Pacific Time (US and Canada)

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Aldona Jonaitis
Art Historian / Retired Director @University of Alaska Museum of the North
Aldona Jonaitis is an art historian who has worked for decades on the art of Northwest Coast Indigenous people. Among her many books are "The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History", written with Aaron Glass and "Discovering Totem Poles". She is the retired director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.