The Totem thieves

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Nov 13 13:58:33 MST 2002


November 13, 2002

The Totem Thieves

In 1899, railroad tycoon Edward Harriman put together an expedition of
naturalists, scientists, painters and fellow robberbarons to explore the
coast of southeast Alaska. The shrewd Harriman, head of the Union Pacific,
even rented the services of John Muir, the father of environmentalism and
founder of the Sierra Club, thus striking a bond between corporate villains
and mainstream greens that thrives to this day.

The object of the two-month foray, which was heralded as the largest survey
of its time, was to size-up Alaska's riches (timber, gold, furs, oil) under
the guise of scientific exploration. Karl Grove Albert, the famed
geologist, picked at rocks. Bernard Fernow, the dean of the American
forestry, cruised timber, calculating the number of board feet per acre.
Edward Curtis lined up Haida and Tlingits for romantic mugshots and the
painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes, taking Audubon's tradition to a new level of
barbarity, shot thousands of animals in order to render them in his sketchbook.

Muir mused with the poet John Burroughs (pal of Walt Whitman) and imparted
his transcendental thoughts about glaciers and grizzlies, while he dined
with some of the high priests of Mammon-men he had previously excoriated as
the defilers of the God's Temple.

Along the way Harriman and his gang engaged in a good bit of plunder of
native villages from Ketchikan to Wrangell. When they arrived at the
Tlingit village of Gaash on Cape Fox, they encountered one of the most
dazzling sites in North America: dozens of intricately-carved totem poles
and the great grizzly bear house, exquisitely carved and painted.

The great Grizzly House of Gaash ranks as one of the most accomplished
artworks produced in America during the 19th Century, and rivals most 20th
century art as well. It was certainly far beyond the talents of any of the
artists mustered up by Harriman, although the paintings and (especially)
the maps of Edward Dellenbach, who had also traveled down the Grand Canyon
with John Wesley Powell, are works of great beauty.

At the time Harriman arrived, most of the Tlingit villagers were away on a
fishing expedition. Later the tycoon would claim that he thought the
village was abandoned. This is almost certainly a lie. Harriman, known as
the "Broker's Boy" by the trust-busters, is one of the most extravagent
liars in American history and an apex capitalist, who not only created one
of the great monopolies but also developed many of the tricks modern
finance and accounting. Ken Lay is a piker next to the mighty Edward Harriman.

The totem poles at Gaash village were relatively new, many only a few years
old. The lodges were tidy and clean. There were probably even elders still
in the villages. This was not Mesa Verde or Keet Seel, but a living
community, whose history was carved on cedar: if anyone had taken the time
to read it. The giant welcoming men, arms raised to the sky, the towering
clan poles, where wolves chased frogs and ravens laughed at beavers and
orca, and the austere grave poles that held the cremated remains of dead

In any event, the team wasted little time documenting the site. Instead,
Harriman ordered the totem poles cut down and removed the carved house
posts and painted panels. The loot was packed up and shipped back to Seattle.


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