By Emily Moore
The Shakes Island Restoration Project belongs to a long history of restorations at Wrangell that dates back to the 1930s (if not before). During the Great Depression, the U.S. Forest Service oversaw a restoration of Shakes Island as part of a major federal initiative to preserve Tlingit and Haida totem poles in Southeast Alaska. Local Tlingit men were hired to do the restoration work through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the relief program that was the hallmark of President Roosevelt's New Deal. The hope of the CCC restoration program was to provide local men with short-term jobs preserving totem poles in a "totem park" that would attract tourists and thus provide long-term jobs for Native artists. During the New Deal restoration project, the lead carvers at Wrangell were Joe Thomas and Tom Ukas. Many other local men helped to adze boards, rough out the totem poles, and erect a new version of the Shakes House. When the park was completed, Natives and non-Natives celebrated with the Wrangell Potlatch, June 3-4, 1940. It was then that Charles Jones, who had also worked for the CCC, was named the next Chief Shakes.
Shakes Island is one of six totem parks established by the CCC in Southeast Alaska during the Great Depression. (Klawock, Hydaburg, Kasaan, Saxman and Totem Bight are the other parks.) The CCC also restored totem poles at the park in Sitka and carved three totem poles for Juneau. Some scholars have argued that these New Deal totem parks represented a government appropriation of Native heritage. They point out that the idea of a "totem park" was not a Tlingit or Haida concept, and that traditionally totem poles were not preserved but were allowed to decay naturally. While this is true, it is also important to note that Tlingit and Haida peoples have adopted the New Deal totem parks for their own cultural needs. The Wrangell Potlatch and the succession of Charles Jones to the rank of Chief Shakes is one example of how Wrangell Tlingits used the totem park to advance Tlingit traditions in the 1940s. And the Shakes Island Restoration project today shows how the park continues to serve as a site for Tlingit art and culture. A hundred years from now, historians may study this restoration project as part of a long and proud tradition of totem pole restoration at Shakes Island.
Emily Moore is PhD Candidate in the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley. Raised in Ketchikan, she is completing her dissertation on the six totem parks in Southeast Alaska created during the New Deal, 1938-1941. Anyone with information on carvers who participated in the New Deal projects are encouraged to contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org, so that she can honor their role in this early restoration project. You can also view her presentation to the Sealaska Heritage Institute by going to http://vimeo.com/29455942.
Photo is courtesy of University of Washington Libraries. The caption reads "Tlingit totem pole being carved inside the Civilian Conservation Corps workshop, Wrangell, Alaska, 1939."