KETCHIKAN, Alaska — For the past four decades, the Totem Heritage Center has worked to preserve Native totem poles and artifacts from around southeast Alaska.
The center, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, was founded after a group of Native elders started talking in the 1960s and expressed concern about the state of totem poles in the region, according to Anita Maxwell, acting director for the City of Ketchikan’s Museum Department, which oversees the center.
“They had been, of course, stolen; they’re in museums around the world,” Maxwell said. “Those elders really wanted to make sure that future generations had the opportunity to see the totem poles, understand their context and be able to be inspired to continue that legacy.”
The elders worked with the Alaska Native Brotherhood/Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Smithsonian, the U.S. Forest Service, the Alaska State Museum and the City of Ketchikan to document what poles were in good enough shape to bring to Ketchikan after receiving permission to move the poles, according to Maxwell.
“The center is so much more than totem poles,” Maxwell said. “The mission is that legacy of Native arts and continuing those traditions, and into contemporary as well. There’s so much fabulous contemporary Native art, and really, it’s having that place where students can learn from world-class instructors and have that dialogue.”
The center was an important part of reviving and restoring Native and Northwest Coast art, according to Ann Froeschle, the center’s program coordinator.
“There was a time when the thread was very thin,” Froeschle said. “ … I don’t think (Native art) is in the perilous state that it once was. We do see young artists stepping up to carry the torch.”
The center, in the early 1990s, started giving arists and students the chance to work toward a certificate of merit.
“It really is demonstrating excellence in Native arts, and being able to showcase how much work they’ve put in,” Maxwell said. “It’s not a traditional apprenticeship, as would have happened in previous years, but it’s a way in a contemporary setting to foster that real dedication to Native arts.”
According to Maxwell, one of the more common questions staff at the center receive from tourists who have seen contemporary poles around Ketchikan is, “Where’s the paint?”
“It’s really interesting to showcase the traditional poles — they’re 150 to 200 years old — to contemporary artwork that students and instructors have recently done,” Maxwell said. “Just showing that vibrant continuation and legacy there is really interesting for visitors, and often really surprising.
“They come in with a perspective (that) this is a dead culture, and it’s so wonderful to be able to share that, no, it’s thriving, and how the art’s changed over time,” Maxwell added.
Tourism wasn’t a large industry when the Totem Heritage Center opened, but the center has adapted parts of its mission over the years to educate tourists and other visitors, Froeschle added.
“That’s an adaptation that the heritage center has made, again, with the ultimate purpose being to strengthen Northwest Coast arts,” Froeschle said. “What an opportunity as well to expose thousands of people to original art of the Northwest Coast, and what an amazing, highly refined, intricate culture this actually was that produced monumental artwork of that nature.
“The wows are extensive when a person first walks into this building,” Froeschle added.
While basketry and carving have traditionally been the foundation of the center’s class schedule, the center tries to offer other classes that might not be available elsewhere, according to Maxwell.
The center also keeps a running list of possible instructors both in and outside of Ketchikan, and the staff relies heavily on the center’s advisory committee to recommend instructors, according to Froeschle and Maxwell.
“Any great teacher is always a student, they’re always continuing to learn,” Maxwell said. “For us, it’s interesting to see, too, with new generations of instructors, them making the transition where they feel they can be an instructor.”
Diane Douglas-Willard has been weaving for about 31 or 32 years after learning the art while living in Hydaburg.
“I lived in Hydaburg for a few years and moved to Ketchikan so I could take more classes with (weaver) Delores Churchill,” Douglas-Willard said, adding that she took numerous classes with Churchill and eventually started teaching at the Totem Heritage Center. She’s been teaching at the center for more than 17 years, and will be teaching again this year.
“ … I always tell people that if Delores Churchill gets to teach a class here, take that class,” Douglas-Willard added. “She is a phenomenal teacher and the most interesting person I’ve ever met. I’ve been so lucky to be able to have worked with her and learn to weave from her.”
“I’ve been teaching for such a long time, but I still enjoy taking classes,” Douglas-Willard said. “ … I always tell people that, especially when they’re new to town, to come take a class at the heritage center. … It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll make it easier for you and we’ll actually have a good time.”
Douglas-Willard added that, after taking classes, people have a better understanding of why woven baskets and other pieces of Native art can be expensive. She also travels to two markets in New Mexico to sell baskets she’s made.
“It’s interesting to be able to take what I’ve learned here and show people down in Santa Fe or Phoenix that we still are keeping our culture,” Douglas-Willard said. “It’s working its way back up to where a lot more people are learning how to do it.”
Ken Decker, the owner of Crazy Wolf Studio on Mission Street, started out as a student at the Totem Heritage Center about 30 years ago and remained a student for about a decade before starting to teach carving classes.
“You have to have some sort of teaching skill other than talent,” Decker said.
Decker added that he was fortunate to have worked under good instructors and teachers when he was learning his craft at the center.
The Totem Heritage Center also helped spur a revival of Native and Northwest Coast art by giving those artists a place to meet, talk and teach, Decker said.
While he doesn’t teach at the center now — he joked that he didn’t need another W-2 form to fill out — Decker still serves on the center’s advisory committee. He also tries to encourage students at the center who bring their work to him to continue working on the craft.
Additional information on classes offered at the Totem Heritage Center is available by contacting the center. Classes start in early October.