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.

LincolnFull1.jpg 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.

Reading from a 1947 magazine article, Taylor quoted the Tlingit chief's declaration: '' 'Let Tleda, who speaks with his chisel, carve a memorial to this man who has freed us.' ''

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.

''Slaves were property, and property was prime. When slaves were freed, a debt was created,'' Worl said. ''You don't hear much about it being connected, though, because Tlingits are not proud that they had slaves.''

Anthropologists have said as many as one out of three Indians living among the tribes of Southeast Alaska was a slave. Some had an eye plucked out and an ear perforated to mark them as property, like Sah Quah, a Haida who appeared before the U.S. District Court in Sitka in 1886, asking to be set free.

The federal attorney representing the Tlingit slave owner was a Virginian and former Confederate officer. He argued that Alaska was Indian country, where the U.S. Constitution didn't apply to internal tribal matters.

Judge Lafayette Dawson disagreed. Later federal court rulings would refute him, but that didn't matter: more than two decades after Abraham Lincoln's death, Dawson formally outlawed slavery in Alaska.

Taylor was right, in a way, that it took U.S. justice to free Alaska's Indians. The important gloss on history added by Wickersham's story was to replace a symbol of defiant chiefs with a symbol of grateful Natives.

Today the weathered totem, with Lincoln's top hat worn away, stands in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. The exhibit describes it as the First White Man totem, essentially adopting the version told by Paul. The curator of collections, Steve Henrikson, acknowledges that the unpaid debt over slavery is an equally plausible explanation.

''To go back to the original meaning, it's always best to go with the word of the people responsible for its creation,'' Henrikson said.

But Henrikson, like Paul, says the story of Lincoln the Emancipator has proved impossible to stamp out.

''That someone would think this honors the white man -- it's a classic case of things having different meanings to different cultures. White people were so sure they were treating Native people right,'' Henrikson said. ''It's exactly the arrogance on the part of Caucasian people that allowed this story to be perpetuated to the present day.''

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.

One famous shame pole is the Lincoln Pole in Saxman, Alaska; it was apparently created to shame the U.S. government into repaying the Tlingit people for the value of slaves which were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation. Other explanations for it have arisen as the original reason was forgotten or suppressed, however this meaning is still clearly recounted by a number of Tlingit elders today.

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


I read somewhere that low man on the totem pole is the place of honor, because it is the most visible. If this is accurate it would follow that isolation at the top of an otherwise unadorned pole would be a position of less honor.

triticale   ·  July 9, 2007 10:50 AM

The U.S. was indeed fortunate that while we were building this country, there were lots of despots willing to sell us real estate at bargain basement prices. We got Alaska for a song because the Czar of Russia needed money. We got Louisiana because Napolean needed money to finance his next war. We got the Gadsden Purchase because General Santa Ana wanted the loot.

Chocolatier   ·  July 9, 2007 2:25 PM

So rather than simply freeing the slaves, we should have first enslaved the Tlingit, then freed all of them, so that they would all be indebted to us.

Silly white man.

ThomasD   ·  July 9, 2007 6:19 PM

Isolation at the bottom is better than isolation at the top.

Trickle down!

Eric Scheie   ·  July 9, 2007 11:14 PM

So let me see if I understand this properly:

1. Whites are Evil because they kept slaves, and

2. Whites are Evil because they freed slaves.

Trimegistus   ·  July 10, 2007 11:10 AM

repaying the Tlingit people for the value of slaves which were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation

Puts a whole new spin on the reparations debate, doesn't it?

TallDave   ·  July 11, 2007 11:42 AM

Have to say, this whole thing has made me rethink the conventional wisdom surrounding identity politics and the "narrative."

Eric Scheie   ·  July 11, 2007 9:26 PM

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