July 09, 2007
They wouldn't lie to tourists, would they?
While I was in Alaska, I did the usual touristy things, saw a lot of wildlife, and took a lot of pictures. I didn't have time for blogging, and because I tend to write about whatever I'm experiencing at the moment, the time to blog about stuff I see or do on vacation would be during the vacation, not when I return.
However, there are some things I'm unable to ignore, especially when they take the form of disputed history. Whenever I stumble onto an unsolved historical puzzle, my need to figure it out makes me tend to remember it, and then I'll return to it later.
In this instance, the unsolved historical puzzle took the form of a totem pole carved by the Tlingit Indians at the famous Saxman Totem village in Ketchikan, Alaska. Considering the usual narratives about the evil white man, I was a bit startled to see a carving of Abraham Lincoln on the top of a tall totem pole, and even more taken aback to hear (from the local guide) that it was carved out of gratitude to Lincoln for freeing the slaves.
Yes, the Tlingit Indians did hold slaves, and while it isn't something most high school kids learn about, when Alaska was owned by Russia, Tlingit slavery was a cultural practice that was allowed to flourish. But it wasn't long after Alaska's 1867 purchase that the enslaved Indians were told they were free. And (at least according to the story I was given), the freed Indians were so grateful to Lincoln that they carved a pole in gratitude.
Sounds plausible, right? It's reflected at websites like this one, but there's a serious historical dispute over what was long considered the prevailing view of history.
Here's the much-disputed, um, "narrative":
In 1867, shortly after the purchase of Alaska, a U.S. revenue cutter patrolling Southeast waters overtook a war canoe of Tlingits anxiously fleeing another group of Tlingits, the predatory Eagle clan. The Indians feared being captured and enslaved. The captain of the cutter kindly explained to the fleeing Tlingits that a man named Abraham Lincoln had freed all slaves in America, and they had no need to fear. The Tlingits then settled nearby, in the shadow of a fort, and later erected a totem pole to honor the great American president.That's pretty much what I was told along with the other unsuspecting tourists who were there.
According to the rest of the article (and a number of other sources), the "gratitude" narrative is hotly disputed by a number of Tlingit Indians, who claim they weren't grateful to Lincoln at all, but angry that he'd taken away their cultural property:
Rosita Worl, a Tlingit anthropologist and head of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, said oral tradition says the Lincoln pole was carved by chiefs angry about having their slaves taken without compensation.Arrogance? I didn't know anything about this story before I saw the totem pole, and frankly, I think the whole issue of Indian slavery is being covered up -- regardless of whether the pole is a shame pole or a pole of gratitude.
The "shame" view finds confirmation in the Wikipedia entry about Tlingit slavery (the pole "has since been frequently misinterpreted as intending to honor Lincoln, but it was in fact done as a way to shame the US government into repaying the Tlingits for a profound loss of wealth") and in the totem pole entry:
The poles used for public ridicule are usually called "shame poles", and were erected to shame individuals or groups for unpaid debts. Shame poles are today rarely discussed, and their meanings have in many places been forgotten. However they formed an important subset of poles carved throughout the 19th century.But what about the idea that there should be different standards for different cultures? One of the things I kept hearing about during the trip was "cultural DNA" which includes things like preserving art, languages, "subsistence hunting rights," and the like. Why can't slavery be just as much a part of a people's "cultural DNA" as "subsistence rights" to throw crude harpoons into intelligent marine mammals?
What I'd like to know is why the Tlingit Indians who are right there and continue to carve totem poles at the village go along with the "arrogant" Caucasian view that the pole was erected out of gratitude.
Something does not compute, and something does not smell right. I suspect that there may be an underlying dispute that involves more than a question of simply which competing narrative is true. I wouldn't be surprised that if many of the Tlingits who believe in the "shame pole" theory would nonetheless want tourists to hear the "gratitude pole" theory, because so many people just aren't, you know, cool with slavery, and having to patiently explain to clueless tourists why the Tlingits have a legitimate grudge against Lincoln might be a major pain in the ass.
Plus it might lead to moral relativism. I mean, once people start thinking that slavery is OK for different cultures and that slaves can be cultural property in some cultures, they might start wondering what gave Lincoln the right to inflict his cultural standards on the South and violate the "cultural DNA" of the Confederacy or something.
A good case can be made for lying.
Especially when there are two competing truths!
I posed at the bottom of another pole, which tells the story of what happened to a Tlingit boy who reached into a place he'd been told not to go.
The thing is, I'm not really disagreeing with the moral lesson there, as I think children should obey their parents. I'm not a child, though, and much as I'm not trying to put words in anyone's mouth (or go where I was told not to go), my insatiable curiosity is aroused when things don't make sense.
If there's one thing worse getting stuck between competing truths, though, it's being trapped in the jaws of cultural DNA.
AFTERTHOUGHT: If we assume that Lincoln pole is a "shame pole," I think it becomes obvious why even the Tlingits themselves would go along with relating (at least to tourists) the original "white lie." Not only is having to apologize for slavery to clueless tourists bureaucratically inconvenient, it's downright embarrassing!
Bottom line: slavery is bad, and they don't want Indians to look bad!
posted by Eric on 07.09.07 at 10:36 AM
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