Saxman or Totem Bight: Which One to Visit?

the top of a pole at Totem Bight
Ketchikan, Alaska is without a doubt the best place in the world to see totem poles, and if you only had one place to see these monumental carvings, Ketchikan should be it. However, Ketchikan's totem poles are scattered over a few major locations, and two of those locations—Saxman Totem Park and Totem Bight State Historical Park—are found at a significant distance from the city center, and in opposite directions from each other.

Ideally, I think visitors to Ketchikan should see both Saxman and Totem Bight, along with the Totem Heritage Center and the other totem poles around the city. But, if you only have a limited time in my hometown, as most visitors do, which should it be—Saxman or Totem Bight?

Saxman Totem Park and Totem Bight State Historical Park came into being around the same time, back in the '30s and '40s as projects directed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC ran programs with Native American groups in many places around the U.S., and in Southeast Alaska, Tlingit and Haida men went to work on massive monuments exhibiting their artistic and cultural heritage. Many of the poles originally carved over seventy years ago have now been replaced: At Saxman, many of the new versions in the last few decades were carved by Nathan Jackson, while at Totem Bight a few were carved by Kinstaadaal (Israel Shotridge). Both are famous Tlingit carvers, although Jackson has greater national recognition.

totem at Totem Bight
displaying the story of
Fog Woman
The parks contain recarved totem poles—poles with designs based on those of old poles, carved during the 19th century. These old poles were taken from nearby sites and in most cases they were allowed to rot away according to Native practice after their designs were studied. (A large number of the old retrieved poles that were not recarved were taken to the Totem Heritage Center to be preserved, but that's a different story.)

While the CCC was involved at both sites, Saxman was a pre-existing Tlingit community, founded in 1894 by members of the Taant'a Ḵwáan (Tongass People) and Sanyaa Ḵwáan (Cape Fox People) who lived in the area. Totem Bight park, meanwhile, was built at a location next to Mud Bight that did not have any historical settlement, at least as far as anyone knows. Nevertheless, Mud Bight (renamed Totem Bight) would have been a great place for a traditional Tlingit winter village, given its geography.

new raven pole at Saxman
This distinction between the origins of the two sites also informs the styles of art there: The poles and clanhouse at Saxman are exclusively Tlingit in origin, although the two most recent recarvings were done by a Haida artist, Donald Varnell. Totem Bight, meanwhile, exhibits an interesting blend of Tlingit and Haida styles, as there were both Tlingit and Haida artists who worked on the poles and the clanhouse.

clanhouse at Totem Bight
Each park has a single large clanhouse, built with huge cedar logs and planks in traditional style, though some 20th-century technology used in the construction process. Both clanhouses host performances from time to time, although the house at Saxman has them much more frequently, as there are community concerts there once a month in winter and dances performed there frequently in the summer for visitors. While lacking frequent shows, the Totem Bight clanhouse is more aesthetically impressive, if not as historically accurate, as it has a tall portal pole and two corner posts with carved tops.

One essential difference between the two is ownership, as Saxman Totem Park is managed by the Cape Fox Corporation and the City of Saxman, while Totem Bight is overseen by the Alaska State Park System. Another factor is cost, since Totem Bight is always free to visit (once you get transportation there) while guided tours at Saxman can be around $30 for an adult, or you pay a $5 fee for going in independently. The cruise lines and other companies sell bus tours to both parks, but both are also accessible by means of Ketchikan's borough bus, which charges only a dollar each way, or fifty cents if you're aged between 5 and 12 or over 65. In terms of time and distance, visitors will find it faster to visit Saxman, as it's only two and half miles from downtown Ketchikan, while Totem Bight is about ten miles in the other direction.

Ultimately, though, the real reason for visiting either park is for the totem poles, or kootéeyaa, as they are known in the Tlingit language (Lingít). In X̱aad Kil, or the northern dialect of the Haida language, totem poles are called gyáa'aang. Saxman has a larger number of kootéeyaa—about two dozen—while Totem Bight has fifteen or sixteen. (Some lie in a restoration shed at the park.) I love some of the stories behind the poles at Saxman, like one about a boy who gets his hand caught in a giant clam (see left). Two in particular have major historical significance as well: One is a "shame pole" that commemorates how U.S. Secretary of State William Seward failed to honor his hosts when he visited in 1869, and another oft-misunderstood pole has a likeness of Abraham Lincoln on the top, but actually isn't about Lincoln at all: A photograph of the president was just used a model for a generic "white man" when a pole was carved to commemorate a first encounter between Tlingit and Europeans.

Two Saxman pole tops: Seward on the left, Lincoln (actually the "first white man") on the right.

Saxman Totem Park
Unfortunately, however, the Saxman Totem Park has now re-painted or re-stained all of their kootéeyaa in an unnatural orange color. It must be better at preserving the wood, but it really doesn't look right when compared to traditional poles. Totem Bight has not used such a stain, (although other preservatives are used), so the poles there may look more weathered, but nonetheless seem more similar in my mind to the poles that stood on the shores of Lingít Aaní back in the 19th century.

house poles portraying Duktoothl
inside the Totem Bight clanhouse
The poles at Totem Bight also have some wonderful stories and meanings behind them, including the story of Fog Woman and the story of Duktoothl, or Blackskin. (Scroll down on the linked page for his story.) Totem Bight has its poles arrayed in a beautiful park and beach setting, while in Saxman they are lined facing each other across a street which leads up to a semi-circle of poles with the clanhouse at the top. Neither array is exactly the same as kootéeyaa and gyáa'aang were historically placed in the 19th century or earlier: Then, the monuments were typically lined up along the beaches where people lived, facing the water. Nevertheless, I enjoy the natural surroundings at Totem Bight, and some of the poles are near the beach and facing the water.

some of the poles at Totem Bight
Totem poles are truly beautiful and powerful monuments, and visitors can find inspiration in them regardless of whether they go to Saxman or Totem Bight. If you can only visit one of the parks while in Ketchikan, however, I recommend going to Totem Bight State Historical Park. While farther away from downtown, Totem Bight has a less commercialized and more natural setting for totem poles first designed and carved by Tlingit and Haida artists in the 1930s.

Note: All photos in this post are my own, taken in July of 2013. Please correct me if any of the information here is inaccurate or misleading. I depended largely on my general knowledge from growing up and working in Ketchikan in order to write this post. Disclosure: I did work at the Alaska Geographic bookstore at Totem Bight for one summer, which is now just a visitor center.