Steve Brown, March 2018
No one knows when or where the first monumental sculpture that would be called a totem pole was created, but the idea eventually expanded into the broad range of styles represented in totem-carving cultures from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska. Stunning images of totem poles standing before big cedar houses on the shore made these monuments to individuals and family lineages one of, if not the principle, icon of Northwest Coast cultures known throughout the world. Native carvers in the second half of the nineteenth century began to make models of standing poles or new combinations of images as items for sale to outside buyers. To make their model poles stand out, certain carvers in several cultural areas began to push beyond the traditional limits of cylindrical poles. Large poles were often hollowed out in back to lighten them and prevent deep cracking. A new direction taken by some artists was to carve more deeply into the cylinder. When such models were hollowed out, it opened up the possibility of piercing clear through the background, adding lightness and ultimate depth to the sculpture of individual figures. Certain late nineteenth-century Tlingit carvers from Haines, Alaska, developed this technique into their own art form, which became known in their language as Kaa’chaok’aa, meaning essentially ‘cut-through’. This large sculpture is carved in the style of other poles known to be from Haines, and it may be the tallest of historical model totems that are pierced-through in this way.
The heads of the four primary figures span across the full width of the pole, while their bodies and the subsidiary figures are outlined and set apart by cut-through areas of the background. The numerous large piercings have carved out a much deeper level of detail than was ordinarily seen in totem carvings of that time. The sculpture of the figures’ heads and the style of painted designs on the wings and flippers suggest a late nineteenth or early twentieth-century origin.
At the top appears a raven holding a frog in its beak, below that is probably a beaver, then a bear-like man holding a raven emerging from his mouth between two spirit faces, and a humanoid bear tearing a sea lion in half stands at the base. Each of these are traditional images that represent crests from related clans or houses. The relative proportions of the four primary figures are carved in the scale of a full-size totem pole, indicating this pole to be in model scale. The style of carving in these figures as well as the piercing can also be seen in other, much smaller model poles from the Haines area, but so far no maker’s name has been associated with this group of sculptures.
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