Totem pole travels long road to home

Totem pole travels long road to home

By Laura Wood

A totem pole on permanent display at the University Museum took the long way to Faner Hall.

The pole was made in Alaska, where a vacationing Chicagoan bought it in the early 1960s. It spent some years in Herb and Gwendolyn Miller’s front yard at their home on Lake Michigan before the couple decided to donate the pole to the museum in 1970.

It took nearly two years to figure out the logistics of moving the 14-foot pole, which depicts a story about Raven, an important figure in the lore of the Tlingit tribe. Such logistics included hiring someone who had the equipment to cut the pole down, get it on a truck and transport it to Carbondale.


“It took a lot of doing,” said Nate Steinbrink, curator of exhibits at the museum.

However, the pole didn’t make it into the museum right away. In fact, it stayed in the museum’s archive building, unexplained and open for interpretation, for 30 years before being turned into an exhibit, Steinbrink said.

“We don’t have a budget for conservation at all, so we just have to wait until situations become possible,” said Eric Jones, clerical assistant at the museum.

David Gugerty, then a graduate assistant at the museum, said he saw it in the archive and was intrigued.

Gugerty said he was flipping through a book about Pacific Northwest tribes when he saw a picture of a pole that looked almost exactly like the one the museum acquired. He informed the curators, referenced the book and ultimately decided to restore the pole and turn it into an exhibit for a final project in his graduate assistantship, he said.

“For a museum, we don’t have a large staff, so most of our work gets done with students’ help,” Steinbrink said. “(Gugerty’s) hard work, and him having the hours to (prepare the exhibit), is what allowed us to do it. He wanted to do it, so he made it happen.”

Gugerty said it took about a year and a half to do all the work necessary for showing the pole, which included reattaching the wings that had fallen off from braving years of Chicago weather, building the wall it stands in front of and building the base it stands on.


However, it wasn’t until a UV protection film could be installed over the museum’s windows that the pole could become a permanent part of the museum. The film blocks harmful UV rays from the sun that contribute to skin cancer and abject fading. Steinbrink said the film over the museum’s windows blocks 80 percent of those rays.

The Raven clan of the Tlingit tribe, the original people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, built the original Sun and Raven totem pole in the early 1900s. Today, people of the tribe can be found in southern Alaska and British Columbia and the Yukon in Canada.

Steinbrink said the pole was estimated to be built around the 1930s. It was during that time when a government program encouraged native carvers to make totem poles as they would have been made generations earlier. Steinbrink said many of the carvers regenerated their craft to start carving poles they could sell.

That is probably how the museum’s pole came to be, Steinbrink said.

As is the case with many totem poles, Raven’s story can be interpreted from top to bottom.

The top figure is of Raven surrounded by a halo, which represents his time visiting the sun and escaping the flood. The three childlike carvings underneath Raven represent the time Raven spent playing with Sun’s children, which symbolizes humanity, light and culture. Below them is the figure of Fog Woman, whom Raven lives with on Earth for some time (that story is told in more detail through another totem pole), and the last totem on the pole is of Raven again on a frog’s back, which represents Raven’s yearn to explore the bottom of the sea and Frog’s willingness to dive down and show him.

Even though about a third of the poles in history were placed in the ground to ensure stability, they averaged anywhere between 40 and 70 meters and would stand erect until either time or inclement weather tore them down.

“The pole in the museum is nothing,” Gugerty said. “Nowadays, 40 to 60 feet is a good size for a totem pole.”

The Sun and Raven totem pole has been a permanent exhibit at the museum since January 2011, which Steinbrink said means it isn’t going anywhere fast. He said tables get set up close to the pole during other exhibits’ receptions so patrons don’t miss out on what there is to see and learn about it.

“Most (exhibits) are here for three months and then are gone,” Steinbrink said. “But the pole is here as long they can keep it here.”