Chief Shakes’ Tribal House

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SourDough News | May 31, 2013

 

Reflection photo by Carol Lagodich.
Reflection photo by Carol Lagodich.

1940 gathering photo courtesy of the Wrangell Museum.
1940 gathering photo courtesy of the Wrangell Museum.

New Chief Shakes’ Tribal House photo by Corree Delabure.
The Forest Service helped provide lumber and carving materials with Secure Rural Schools and Farm Bill funding. Historically, the US Forest Service was in charge of all CCC activity in Alaska. The previous Chief Shakes’ Tribal house and numerous totem poles were preserved during this era. New Chief Shakes’ Tribal House photo by Corree Delabrue.

Historic Kisetti pole
Historic Kicksetti pole.

Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Southeast Alaska
By Corree Delabrue, Wrangell Ranger District

 

The work of the Civilian Conservation Corps is well known to those who visit our national parks and forests. We can find evidence of the CCC’s legacy on trails, in public buildings, and even on bridges and roads. Lesser known is the CCC’s involvement in preserving totem poles and Native heritage sites throughout Southeast Alaska. Recently, one of these CCC-era projects, the Chief Shakes’ Tribal House in Wrangell, was rededicated during a community celebration. This rededication provided a good opportunity to reflect on significance of CCC projects in Southeast Alaska’s cultural preservation.

 

The U.S. Forest Service was in charge of all CCC activity in Alaska from 1933 to 1941. In addition to their normal road and recreation facility projects, the CCC leaders in Southeast Alaska undertook the restoration of Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Due to the nature of the rainforest environment, wooden totem poles did not last long, and custom was to let nature take its course. Toward the end of the 19th century, the making of new totem poles declined. This was due to a variety of reasons, including missionary influence, discouragement of potlatches, and the abandonment of old villages for jobs in towns and the newly formed canneries. Without new poles being carved, an art form was fading as the old poles decayed.

 

In 1906, William Langille, the first supervisor of the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve/Tongass National Forest, was interested in preserving cultural landmarks. He recommended preserving totem poles and community houses at the old village sites of Old Kasaan and Tuxekan on Prince of Wales Island. He also helped with the creation of Sitka National Monument. Yet, it was not until the late 1930s and the influx of money from the CCC that the Forest Service was able to move forward with an actual totem pole preservation campaign.

 

Forest Service architect Linn Forrest was put in charge the totem pole project. CCC workers were chosen from the local community, and unlike most other CCC programs that solely hired young men, older men were hired to work. Some of these older workers retained a knowledge of carving. They, in turn, were able to teach the art to younger workers. Their task was to restore or replicate deteriorating totem poles that would be concentrated in newly created “totem parks” that Forrest designed. Such parks were created in Klawock, Hydaburg, Wrangell, Kasaan, Saxman, and Totem Bight. The CCC also restored totem poles at the park in Sitka and carved poles for Juneau and Seattle.

 

By the end of the Depression, 48 poles had been restored, 54 duplicated, and 19 new totems carved. Three community houses also were replicated, including the Chief Shakes house in Wrangell, Mud (Totem) Bight in Ketchikan, and a house at Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island. During this project, stories and traditions connected with the totems were also documented. Forrest and Dr. Viola Garfield from the University of Washington published many of the collected stories in their book, The Wolf and the Raven[i].

 

Training new carvers to revive and retain this important cultural skill was a goal of the CCC project. In A History of The U.S. Forest Service in Alaska, Lawrence Rakestraw quotes Ketchikan carver Charles Brown: “The story of our fathers’ totems is nearly dead, but now once again is being brought to life. Once more familiar totems will proudly face the world with new war paints.[1]

 

Though there was controversy over the poles moving from their original sites, creating the totem parks allowed for the return of ceremonies like potlatches and successions. During this era, potlatch ceremonies had been discouraged and diminished, but the restoration of the Chief Shakes Tribal House and totems called for a celebration. On June 3, 1940, Charles Jones was bestowed the title of Chief Shakes VII during the Tribal house potlatch and rededication.

 

Over seventy years later, the Chief Shakes Tribal House underwent restoration once again. The Wrangell Cooperative Association undertook this project with a multitude of partners and community volunteers, truly making it a community investment. The Forest Service contributed to the project by providing timber for the longhouse reconstruction and carving materials through the Farm Bill and $50,000 in Secure Rural Schools Funding.

 

On May 4, 2013, after several years of fundraising, planning and physical labor, Chief Shakes’ Tribal House was rededicated during a weekend of celebrations that brought dancers, elders, traditional canoeists, visitors and dignitaries from all over Southeast Alaska to Wrangell. This modern renovation is once again creating a revival in the art of carving in the community of Wrangell. The restoration of the Chief Shakes’ Tribal House brought distinguished carvers to town, trained new carvers, and is raising the overall profile of this art. To cement this craft’s prominence in town, a permanent carving shed is currently being built in Wrangell, a place for a new generation of carvers to hone their craft.

 

Wrangell. The restoration of the Chief Shakes’ Tribal House brought distinguished carvers to town, trained new carvers, and is raising the overall profile of this art. To cement this craft’s prominence in town, a permanent carving shed is currently being built in Wrangell, a place for a new generation of carvers to hone their craft.

 

If you happen to find yourself in Wrangell, come take a look! To get a peek inside, contact the Wrangell Cooperative Association (907-874-4304) for times when the Tribal House will be open to the public


 


 

[i]Garfield, Viola and Linn Forrest. The Wolf and the Raven: Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska. University of Washington Press, 1948.

[1]Rakestraw, Lawrence. A History of the United States Forest Service in Alaska. USDA reprint, 2002, p.102