There is a small totem park in downtown Wrangell that I have driven by and walked by for years. Today I decided it was time to walk through this park instead of by it. In the summer the grounds are beautiful and cared for with inviting paths that curve through the trees, gardens, and totems. Now, in this wintery, leafless season, there is another beauty. The totems and tree trunks stand in shades of grey against the thick, snowy blanket.
The totem poles have stood, quietly telling their story every day, for decades. Growing up in Southeast Alaska, I remember looking up at totems, pondering the faces and forms carved deeply into wood, soaking in the formline designs, and being fascinated by the rhythmic texture of the adze marks. When I was a child I was told that each one tells a story, but now I feel that each totem pole tells many stories. The symbols within symbols, layers of textures, and expression within structure speak of deep culture. The reasons for, and meanings of, each pole are as individual as those of any work of art.
Each feature of the artworks in this park tells details known to the people who live within the Tlingit society here. Not just each symbol, but the way in which it is depicted. It may be possible for the story to be told in a few words, but for the meaning to fill years or lifetimes.
The totems here have weathered over time. I find that I am fascinated with the way that wood grain and checking add depth, both visually and symbolically.
There are many totems throughout Southeast Alaska, from very old totems, housed away from the elements in museums, to bright totems that were carved this year. I look forward to seeing two new totems, raised in the village of Klukwan recently, that are dedicated to women.
In viewing totems I am a tourist in my land. I was born here, and am strongly bound to Southeast Alaska. I am a native of Alaska, but not an Alaskan Native. As the Alaska Native cultures are renewed, celebrated, and strengthened I am given the gift of learning about their culture right here, where they and I have always lived.
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