When Kake’s 132-foot totem pole was raised on the bluff overlooking the city in 1971, it was celebrated as the tallest sanctioned totem pole in the world – meaning that it was created by a trained Native carver and raised according to traditional ceremony. While it is now faded, and cracked at the top, the totem remains a symbol of Kake’s history and honors many traditions.
The totem was commissioned by the City of Kake in 1967 and carved in Haines out of one cedar tree. The city had two ideas in mind when commissioning the impressive piece. First, it commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Alaska purchase. Second, raising the totem served as a symbolic healing necessary after the cutting and burning of Kake’s traditional totems in 1912. According to some accounts, they were destroyed by villagers in response to pressure from missionaries to modernize the community.
Decades later, the people of Kake were determined to have a totem in their city once again. The design incorporated symbols from Tlingit clans, as well as Tsimshian and Haida tribes to unite the three tribes of the Southeastern Alaska panhandle. The carving at the bottom of the pole depicts a strong man ripping a sea lion in half. Frogs, salmon and orca images also decorate the pole, and an eagle perches at the top.
After it was carved and painted, Kake’s totem was displayed at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. In 1971, hundreds of people from nine Southeast communities gathered in Kake for a 3-day celebration, potlatch and ceremonial totem raising to lift it high over the city. Since that day, Kake’s totem has faded, weathered with time and storms, but remains standing as a symbol of unity and enduring Native traditions.