Ravens, Eagles, Totems, and Salmon Spit

By Ernie Witham   |   August 1, 2019

“Nice bracelet,” Pat said to the Native bus driver.

“My cousin made it. For my moiety. I am an eagle. My wife is a raven.”

“My wife is a Sheppard,” I said. “Sometimes that makes me feel sheepish.”

He did not laugh. Neither did my wife. Or anyone else on the bus.

He went on to say his Native name was Earth Shaker and his wife was Thunder Woman. I thought of another clever wife rejoinder, but figured I might need a new nest to reside in if I used it, so I quickly took my seat. 

We were on the Silver Line, a bus you can ride all day in Ketchikan, Alaska, for five bucks. It was taking us to Totem Bight State Historical Park. However, we only went a few blocks before the driver pulled over and opened the door. A Native woman thundered aboard and said: “You forgot your phone – again.” Earth Shaker seemed shaken.

Riding the local bus is a great way to see the rural areas and to observe some of its citizens. One young man was complaining how the bus was 20 minutes late the day before. Then when we stopped at the local Walmart, he jumped out ran in and got a can of soda, while we waited. 

Our next stop was near two tiny buildings that housed a combo dog grooming service, coffee shop and tropical fish store. The tropical fish were probably wondering where they made a wrong turn and what happened to all the snorkelers. 

After a few more stops we arrived at a pullout. “The bus comes once an hour. Be back here on time or you will have to wait an additional hour for the next one.”

“Or longer,” the young man said, slurping his Walmart soda.

Located a short walk through a rainforest, Totem Bight is a model Native village. Started in 1938, it features 14 Tlingit and Haida totem poles that have been salvaged from old villages that were abandoned when Natives moved to the city for work. Some have been recreated from new cedar logs using traditional methods. Totem Bight also features a community clanhouse. 

Clanhouses accommodated 30 to 50, who lived on a planked platform surrounding a central fire pit. To preserve peace, someone of raven lineage had to marry an eagle and visa-versa. Children were raised by their uncles and aunts. So even if you were an eagle bachelor uncle, you might have had the pleasure of raising a fledgling or two. 

The opening of the clanhouse is short and narrow, so you have to crawl in and out. This served several purposes. A bear, looking for a warm meal, would have to enter head first, so clan members could poke him with spears until he decided berries might be safer. Also, if a member of a different clan was looking for a new wife while the men were out hunting, his head could be whacked by cooking utensils until the mood passed.

Totems included ravens, eagles, bear, deer, wolves, salmon, halibut and more and each told a story, related at a potlatch (raising ceremony). One oddity on some poles: they are topped by Abraham Lincoln. When natives decided they wanted to include a white man on their totems, his was the only printed image they had to go by. It was a three-quarter-length image, so on the totems, Lincoln is always really short!

After lunch in Ketchikan at the New York Café which had nothing to do with New York, we found the Silver Line bus stop again but… it was late. A local woman told us the schedule changes constantly. When it finally arrived, we headed for Saxman, another totem village. Ketchikan has the largest collection of totems in Alaska.

There, a guy with a weird mustache wearing a conductor shirt was telling a group about totem decoration, so we listened in. We found out that women painted the totems. They made paint from iron ore and silicate, mixing it by chewing salmon eggs wrapped in cedar and forcing the liquid part through their teeth like a strainer. They were probably really glad when Dutch Boy Paints moved to town. 

Someone yelled “The Silver Line!” and we all ran for the bus.


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