Here in Ketchikan, Alaska, the creek is thick with spawning Pinks, having leapt waterfalls and manmade ladders to now shuffle against the current and shimmy at the stream’s shallowest edges. They’re like an elegant, undulating carpet, building their redds in the riffles (shallow nests). Local kids wade in and scoop them up in their arms for fun — if the bears haven’t got there first. Scientists believe the salmon use magnetic fields and their sense of smell to return to the very beds they were born in. If they manage to make it, after spawning an inborn senescence kicks in, softening their bodies and killing them there in the streambed — the whole thing preprogrammed in a kind of perfect, heroic arc.
The town of Ketchikan encircles these riches like a chorus — the original summer fishing camp for the Tlingit people. Now altogether a sleepy trawler port, bustling frontier and tourist hotspot, Ketchikan remains pale under a drifting sky from the nearby Tongass National Forest and its natural monument, the Misty Fjords. Upstream, between spruce and hemlock thickets, a collection of thirty-three 19th Century totem poles lay protected in a climate-controlled museum. Silent and silvery, they rest on their sides, rescued at the end of their hundred-year lifespan from now abandoned Tlingit and Haida village sites nearby.
In their new role, the totems and the graphic power of their formlines endure. Circles, ovoids, U-forms and S-forms reveal bears, ravens, eagles, orcas, humans and the mythological Thunderbird and Sisiutl — the unveiling of their mysteries dependent on inquiry and oral history. Even at rest, the poles extend their invitation. In the afterlife, art joins another cycle.
PS: “Formline is the primary design element on which Northwest Coast art depends, and by the turn of the 20th century, its use spread to the southern regions as well. It is the positive delineating force of the painting, relief and engraving. Formlines are continuous, flowing, curvilinear lines that turn, swell and diminish in a prescribed manner. They are used for figure outlines, internal design elements and in abstract compositions.” (Bill Holm in his 1965 book Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form)
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” (Aristotle)
Esoterica: The Tlingits are matrilineal, with decent and inheritance passed through the mother’s line and with art incorporated into almost every area of life. Kinship moieties — the Raven and the Eagle — are divided into clans, which are then subdivided into house groups. Each group has a heraldic crest displayed on totem poles, house posts, potlatch regalia, weavings, jewellry, feast dishes and ceremonial blankets. “This is not a costume,” a young Raven told me. “Think of it as a tuxedo.” I nodded as she pulled it over my head, the weight resting on my shoulders. Mother of pearl buttons were twinkling along its edges, which swept the floor as I swayed in a circle dance. The blankets are passed as treasures to family members only, though an exception can be made for someone a Tlingit holds in trust. This trusted person becomes responsible for its care, without ever claiming ownership.