For the “First Friday” art walk in Juneau last week, the Third Floor of the Capitol was open with a new item of art on display outside the office of the lieutenant governor, and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott highlighted it with particular pride.
The work in question is a large photograph of the Tongass People’s “shaming totem” of a former U.S. secretary of state, with a few artistic liberties taken by the photographer to add insult to injury: The ears are unnaturally red, the mouth is exaggerated, and the lighting is ghoulish.
The totem mocks Secretary of State William Seward, who orchestrated the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Tzarist Russia. The real totem was recently replaced in Saxman (a Native village near Ketchikan) after the previous two rotted.
But Seward evidently insulted coastal Alaska Natives by not reciprocating a potlatch they had held in honor of the visiting dignitary over 150 years ago.
According to KINY radio, Mallott says that the totem is an admonishment to visitors that all people should be treated with respect.
Mallott told the radio station that the insult remains all these years later.
“There has been a lack of closure and I think the Seward Pole kind of represents that in a very clear, powerful way. But it is not a closure people are sitting around waiting for. People are continuing to grow and develop and create lives and our own history and our own society as Alaskans all, in this place. But it is appropriate, I think, to continue these conversations to work toward having respect for every single Alaskan.”
Respect for William Seward is evidently not warranted in Mallott’s view, but Seward was a towering figure for civil rights, who was not only instrumental in the acquisition of the Alaska Territory, but was a lifelong activist who freed many slaves at great personal and professional risk.
Seward and his wife Frances were ahead of their times for social justice causes, especially abolition. Their home was a safe house along the Underground Railroad, which passed fleeing slaves along to freedom in the north.
Seward became an abolitionist at an early age, influenced by his interactions with the slaves working in his family home, whom he found to be engaging, intelligent, and moral.
His activism continued throughout his life and he risked political power for the cause of emancipation. His speeches and writings are widely documented.
However, his lack of understanding about the culture of potlatches and the tradition of reciprocating them led to a grave insult taken by the tribe, and thus the subsequent erection of a totem in Saxman. On it, Seward was depicted with white face paint and red “ashamed” cheeks.
The two earlier totems rotted with time and rain, and a new one has been completed. They have continued to memorialize Seward’s faux pas of so many years ago.
A large photograph of the totem now reminds every visitor to the Office of the Governor that respect should be given, or else there will be a price to pay. Because some insults can just never be forgiven.
While I think the totem and the Lt. Governors comments are just more PC craziness, I also think you may have been a bit one-sided in your praise of William Seward. As a US Senator he introduced the Corwin Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment which passed both the House and the Senate would have amended the Constitution to “forever guarantee the right of the Southern people to own slaves.” Not exactly what one would expect from an abolitionist. It is thought by some scholars that Seward was acting on behalf of Lincoln by shepherding this legislation through the Senate. Since the Republican platform simply opposed the “extension” of slavery, this amendment would have been in keeping with the party platform. Or perhaps he saw this amendment as a way to preserve the Union and avoid a Civil War, with southern slaves sacrificed for the greater good. I’m not trying to imply that Seward was more flawed than any of us. Rather, I’m simply pointing out that his views on slavery were likely more complicated than your article would seem to indicate.
I think context is important. Seward had a decade long career of trying to stop the spread of slavery. He was a Whig before he was a Republican and the Corwin Amendment was submitted in March of 1861, a month after 7 states had left the Union and we were on the precipice of the bloodiest war in our history.
You casually wave away the fact that the Corwin Amendment trying to avoid the bloodiest war in our history with a “perhaps” he saw Civil War.
Quite frankly I find it disgraceful that Natives will shame someone for not showing up to a fancy dinner some 160 years later and it is shameful for Mallot to hang a mocking picture because his great ancestors felt stood up.
Speaking of slavery… John Muir noted the existence of slavery amongst the northern Tlingit into the 1880s!
I believe it may be time for the Tlingit to apologize for slavery.
No surprise here. Is the State of Alaska paying for this “shaming” pole? There is no mention of the cost or the source of funds for the pole and the picture in the Capitol Building. Is the whole population of our state supposed to revel in the shaming or just the native peoples?
Randall Frank, great question-“Is the State of Alaska paying for this…”. Maybe it’s part of the 1% for Art program that you paid for with your PFD!
So no living person was party to the insult and somehow this shaming is meant to unite all Alaskans now and forever? How does that work? When does forgiveness kick in? When do we learn from the past and honor the lessons without using 150 year old insults as a wedge? Just wondering when it’s time to move on….
Take another look at the picture. That face is very similar to that of the Lt. Gov. I have certainly seen that expression on his face, but it was anger more than anything else.
Ok, now that I’m done laughing, the reality is that it’s just one more way of dividing people by race & color. Would that totem be there if Seward had been a native Alaskan? I think not. What Seward did was a dishonor to Alaskan natives. Yet, how many people even today understand the culture? A lot more than understood it 160 years ago but still many don’t today. Regardless of anything else Seward did Alaska Natives would be living a whole lot differently it they were part of Russia. The only one being ignorant here is the Lt. Too bad he chooses to divide and not bring people together.
How simple it is to criticize or mock what is not understand. How difficult it is to consider for even a moment that there is another view of the world that may be worth considering.
What ever one’s persuasion it takes courage to place oneself into the mind and heart of the people who have documented their occupancy of this land for the last 14,000 years. This was and is their home. They have documented trade throughout the Pacific ocean from Ecuador to Taiwan. As evidence of this history their totems now stand in places of honor throughout the world from Seattle to DC, from LA to Orlando, from Formosa to Germany. For this reason Germany, sent their finest linguistic anthropologists to study the history and the language of these same people who not only documented the world flood, they also documented by name the first human beings to see the sun, moon and stars. So struck were they with what they discovered that they replicated the last clan house of these same people on the grounds of their university, in Germany. After all, its not often that you find your own ancestral tongue spoken so fluently on the opposite side of the planet.
These people who spanned the Pacific ocean and whose totems are now be found throughout the world, were not immune to the diseases that wiped out 95% of the population of the continent. Still they survived as a remnant. It was that remnant that met the Spaniards and the Russians who also came to these lands looking for riches. It was that remnant that fought the Russians in multiple battles, that prevented the Russians from expanding into permanent settlements that would have put Russia, in a position to say no to Seward’s offer. It was that remnant that withheld from the Russians the location of Juneau’s gold deposits that dwarfed the fee paid to the Russian Crown for Alaska.
When the offer came for America to buy Russia’s claim to Alaska, however valid, this remnant of 14,000 years raised itself up and prepared to meet the leader of the great nation of the United States, President Abraham Lincoln. As they had done in millenniums past, they prepared themselves as one would to welcome a world leader visiting their home. They prepared for a nation to nation honor potlatch relationship, as one of the oldest nations on the planet, welcoming one of the newest nations on the planet. This was not a simple meal or potluck. It was over a year in preparation, culminating in the carving of the world famous Abraham Lincoln Totem Pole, which coincidentally, predates any other carving in wood or stone of Abraham Lincoln, in the world. The stage was set to welcome this great leader, with a two week potlatch that included precious gifts for this President. Gifts of every manner, including copper, gold and silver, and works of art that now sit in museums throughout the world. Such was the practice of these ancient people who honored interdependence in service to others as the primary standard for all men to strive for. So it was that this potlatch was prepared for the Nation’s Leader who exemplified Interdependence in his willingness to battle for freedom for all men.
Sadly, Abraham Lincoln’s time on earth came to an end, before this potlatch could welcome him. No doubt, had he been present, these matters would have ended quite differently and the world would have taken a different path. Nevertheless, having prepared for the potlatch, these people prepared to welcome the next available representative of this great leader. His name was Secretary of State Seward, who while recuperating from his own injuries, was not aware of, nor prepared for the events that were to follow.
To his shock and amazement, the welcoming he received from these impoverished people, was overwhelming in all respects. The record shows that the volume of precious gifts he received was so large that the ship he was traveling on could not accommodate the volume or weight. As such an additional ship had to be requisitioned to transfer the wealth back to Washington.
When such wealth is provided in an interdependent society, it is expected that within a reasonable period of time, those gifts would be acknowledge, thanks expressed and among more mature independent societies, a reciprocal potlatch would be announced and one would expect to be welcomed to visit in the leaders home town, if not his home. Such was the practice in the millenniums of times past.
Sadly, this was not what occurred. Seward, as the acknowledged representative of the United States, sailed off with these treasures, not understanding nor appreciating the honor that he had received, that was intended for Abraham Lincoln. He did not understand that this not only was an honor that he willingly received, it was an honor and obligation of reciprocity placed on the United State government to demonstrate and to acknowledge itself as a mature interdependent society.
To make matters worse, in sailing off with these treasures, Seward directed that the potlatch system should be banned and done away with as an useless and wasteful practice; and in doing so in the eyes of these people, washing away any obligation he had to reciprocate or even return the treasures now in his possession.
To these people, the injury was so great that some demonstration of that event must be documented. The loss of the treasures while demonstrably harmful, was minor compared the second assault, which was the banning of potlatches. For it was in these potlatches that the existence of an interdependent society lives and breaths. It is where a baby receives the name it will have for the rest of its life. It is where a man and woman, become man and wife. It is where elders are honored and laid to rest. It is where the history of 14,000 years is passed on to the next generation. It is where the wealth of one generation is honored and inherited by the next. It is where one interdependent society nurtures, develops and builds a relationship with another interdependent society as mature peers. It was where one of the oldest nations on the planet had offered its hand, heart and wealth in peace and love to one of the newest nations on the planet.
Sadly, this was lost. Hence, as an interdependent society, an interdependent decision was made to acknowledge that loss in what is now known as the Seward Shame Pole. In an independent society, one might interpret this event as simply a sore looser or simple bitterness of someone who should be pitied or ridiculed for being so foolish as to trust anyone to honor this ancient practice. As an interdependent society, this pole is raised with strict protocol that must 1) acknowledge the facts of the event, 2) take no retaliatory actions that would serve to in any way justify the abuse in the eyes of the world or the abuser, 3) share this event with the generations to come to serve as a teaching of what to do and not to do, as well as a warning to be wary of the abuse and abuser, 4) be willing to openly discuss this abuse with others and the abuser, 5) be willing to seek full disclosure and full resolution with the abuser in a way that brings honor and peace to both parties, and 6) when resolution is agreed upon, the pole must be taken down and burned in a public potlatch that allows both parties to honor and celebrate each other in the initiation of the interdependent relationship that was originally intended.
This pole remains a symbol of relationships lost and longed for. The Seward Pole is not a shame pole for Seward or his family as much as it is a shame pole shared between the the United States Government and the Tongass Tribe of Tlingits. In as much as an abused individual feels shame for being abused, so it is the feeling here. The abuser may or may not feel any reason for shame and in fact may gloat and say look what we got away with. An independent society may seek revenge or restitution as a preferred outcome. An interdependent society will seek resolution and revival of the lost relationship as the preferred outcome. The Seward Pole stands to invite the United States Government to meet to seek resolution and revival of a relationship lost.
Please forgive me if I have said anything to offend for it was not my intention to offend. This is offered only as an entreaty for understanding.
Amazing how democrats forget their history of segregation, slavery, Jim Crow etc. and they want us to forget it also. Yet making a cultural faux pa should be indelibly marked against secretary Seward.
Lt. Governor Mallott should be ashamed for dividing Alaskans, one group against another. As an elected official, he has no right to divide Alaskans and he hopefully does not reflect the values of the Alaskan Native Peoples. They are better than that. Maybe the Tlingit should apologize for their poor “relations” with the Haida. It does seem that Lt. Governor Mallott wants non-Native Alaskans to leave the state. Could that be true?
The fallacy in elevating one race as having seniority over another solely because they happened to exist in one location while another race existed elsewhere is ridiculous. Each of us have roots that go deep and yet still brings us to our present location and experiences. I personally find all of this juvenile and just another form of manipulation to obtain either special benefits and/or recognition. So Secretary Seward made a mistake. To dwell upon on it 150 years later is disingenuous. This false sense of entitlement because of decades or even centuries ago behavior is a disease that is consuming our state and our nation. The fact that a Lt. Governor would engage in this offensive behavior demonstrates that he too is looking for special benefits and/or recognition. Mr. Mallott, it is time for you and Mr. Walker to end this fiasco, that began 3 years ago. Your political marriage never should have happened and has resulted in the present disharmony that is rotting our state. If we continue to elevate one group of people over another, we will never be Alaskans or Americans, but divided special interest groups.
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