The golden age of totem poles was during the mid-1700s to the late 1800s, when the fur trade created a sense of wealth that the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida tribes had never before experienced. They invested in potlatch celebrations and the creation of totem poles (made easier with the arrival of iron tools).
In the late 1800s, many natives – their numbers decimated by smallpox and tuberculosis – moved into larger communities, leaving their villages and totems behind. Some of these were removed in the 1930s, and you can find their replicas at Totem Bight State Historical Park or Saxman Village Totem Park.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1970 that the last of the standing totems were recovered and brought to Ketchikan to be preserved at what is now the Totem Heritage Center. There’s something humbling about being in the presence of the old totems that have been laid to rest here. Even though they no longer stand, braced against wind and sea, their stories remain to be shared with visitors. Silvery-gray with age, they are still stunning, intricately carved works of art. Memorial poles, story poles, family poles and clan poles, each offers an individual design and explanation.
The Totem Heritage Center houses 33 poles in a climate-controlled environment, 16 of which are on permanent display. Photos of the old village sites help you imagine these poles as they stood originally. Native artifacts such as baskets, masks, and regalia give additional insight into the artistry and cultural heritage of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.
Take the free downtown shuttle or the city bus to get here, or enjoy a 15-20 minute walk past the salmon ladder and across Ketchikan Creek to Deermount Street. Totem Heritage Center is open every day (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) from May through September. In the winter months it’s open Monday through Friday (1 p.m. to 5 p.m.).
There’s a nominal entrance fee.