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Monday, July 22

Gapers Block

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The totem pole that stands today in Lincoln Park, just east of Lake Shore Drive at Addison Street, is only 20 years old, but the real tale begins much earlier than that.

Pole sculpture belongs to the tradition of several Pacific Northwest Native American tribes living in Alaska, western British Columbia and stretching south into the states of Washington and Oregon. These totem poles were placed in specific locations and served three main purposes. Some were placed on the front of a house, often framing the doorway. Other carved poles were found in the interior of the house, acting as supports for the roof beams. And some were free-standing, erected outside a home. Poles were commissioned by chiefs or other wealthy members of the tribe to commemorate an event, memorialize a death or mark a particular location.

The Lincoln Park totem pole belongs to the tradition of the Kwakiutl Indians in western British Columbia, Canada. Along with the Haida tribe, the Kwakiutl are renowned for their woodcarving skills, including not only totem poles, but also elaborately carved and painted masks.

Many Chicagoans had their first contact with the Kwakiutl during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. George Hunt, a Tlinglit Indian who was raised Kwakiutl, was charged by organizers of the fair to help put together an exhibit of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Hunt collected hundreds of objects for the Exposition, including a house and a number of carved poles, and traveled to Chicago in April of 1893 with a group of 17 Kwakiutl Indians from Fort Rupert, British Columbia. An entire Indian "village" was erected on the fair grounds where the Kwakiutl demonstrated their ceremonial dances, arts and other traditions. After the Exposition, most of the objects from the exhibit were donated to the Field Museum, where many still can be seen on display today.

The totem pole in Lincoln Park, however, was not from this collection. The original pole that stood at Addison and the lakefront was donated to the city in 1929 by James L. Kraft, the founder of Kraft Inc. The pole was 40 feet tall and, like many totem poles, was carved from a single cedar log.

But the city was not kind to the sculptural landmark. Not only did the pole suffer from Chicago weather, but it also endured a number of other mishaps. The pole was repainted many times over the decades, sometimes inadvertently altering the original designs, so the appearance of the pole changed over time. In 1972 the pole was set on fire by vandals, which badly damaged the bottom figure. And the pole was given steel reinforcements and a fiber glass coating that, although meant to help preserve the pole, probably contributed to its further deterioration.

In 1982 the Field Museum opened its permanent exhibit dedicated to the "Maritime Peoples of the Arctic and Northwest Coast" for the first time. Research conducted for the preparation of the exhibit brought new attention to the lakefront totem pole, and experts began to suspect the pole was of greater historical and cultural importance than anyone had realized. As a result, the original totem pole was removed from its spot on the lakefront in 1985, and it was sent to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where experts hoped to conserve the sculpture.

Kraft Inc., following the example of its founder, then commissioned a new pole to take the place of the original. The totem pole which stands today at Addison Street and Lake Shore Drive was unveiled on May 21, 1986, and it is a faithful replica of the 1929 pole that restored the form and colors of that pole as it looked before it was damaged by botched restoration attempts. A sea monster with a lively expression forms the base of the pole, while a whale balances on top of it with its tail in the air. The pole is topped by a thunderbird with its wings outstretched, and which grips the whale's tail.

Tony Hunt carved the current lakefront totem pole, which is called Kwanusila. Hunt is the hereditary chief of the Kwakiutl tribe of Fort Rupert, British Columbia. He is also an internationally renowned artist whose work in wood, carved in the Kwakiutl tradition, can be found in collections such as the St. Louis Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Chicago's own Field Museum.

But, as if that wasn't enough, Tony Hunt is also a descendent of the same George Hunt who brought the Kwakiutl to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago more than a hundred years ago. So, that he should be the artist responsible for the lakefront totem pole seems both meaningful and appropriate.

Kwanusila is a special and important work of public sculpture in Chicago. And, although it was completed in 1986, the totem pole by the lake has a story that goes back to the 19th century.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . She may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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