The tale of the pilfered Tlingit totem

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

It was 1973, the year after he earned his master's degree in anthropology at Stanford University, that UAA Professor Emeritus Stephen Langdon began his anthropological career on Prince of Wales Island. He was there conducting research on fishing and the change of the Tlingit and Haida people's fishing under the influence of things like the advent of commercial salmon canning.

UAA Professor Emeritus Stephen Langdon discovered a photo of Vincent Price and a totem pole that touched off a years-long hunt for a pole actor John Barrymore stole from Tuxecan in 1931. Langdon helped the Klawock tribe recover the pole last year. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

UAA Professor Emeritus Stephen Langdon discovered a photo of Vincent Price and a totem pole that touched off a years-long hunt for a pole actor John Barrymore stole from Tuxecan in 1931. Langdon helped the Klawock tribe recover the pole last year. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

I'd been on Prince of Wales Island a long time, involved in doing a lot of archival research about settlements and the loss of population and the influence of missionaries and government officials on changing residences of people, so I'm very familiar with looking in archives. Ketchikan is the closest larger community to the Prince of Wales villages, so I was going through their archives. I asked about pictures they had from older settlements on Prince of Wales Island.

One of those villages is called Tuxecan. Langdon started going through pictures of totem poles they had in a binder.

I turned the binder page and was struck by this very different image of this actor. I looked twice and said, "Well, that's Vincent Price!" And there's this large pole standing next to him and they're apparently on his estate in the Hollywood area, and there are cactus surrounding this pole. That was probably in the early- to mid- nineties when I had that particular occasion.

The kooteeya John Barrymore stole stands at Tuxecan in this photo taken in the 1920s. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Stephen Langdon)

The kooteeya John Barrymore stole stands at Tuxecan in this photo taken in the 1920s. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Stephen Langdon)

Fast forward 20 years. Langdon had started research and saw many other pictures taken of Tuxecan in the late part of the 19th century. He couldn't forget that bizarre photo, however.

That was a very startling image. And I said, "How did this happen? How is it that Vincent Price has this pole? It was just a question in my mind until maybe the early 2000s.

Langdon took the picture to Klawock-the community where Tuxecan's Tlingits had moved-and showed it to his friend and colleague, Jon Rowan, a carver there.

I began to look at the pictures from Tuxecan and, lo and behold, he found a picture that had the pole in place. And so then we knew the pole had come from Tuxecan. When and how it had disappeared and become a part of Vincent Price's estate, we didn't know.

Rowan and Langdon spotted the pole in position in a series of photos, up until the 1920s. When did the pole disappear? Where was it hiding before surfacing in that photo of Vincent Price's yard in California?

This guy from Glacier Bay National Park [a National Park Service cultural-resources specialist, Wayne Howell] contacted me. He had seen a picture of the pole. A sea creature's appearance in the pole, particularly the fin that comes out of the back, drew his interest because he was working with an elder in Hoonah who was from a clan in which the shark was a major crest. The elder told [Howell] that a pole (as well as a screen from a house at the entrance to Glacier Bay) had been taken from their territory in the early part of the 20th century. This park ranger was pursuing research to see if he could identify where those two pieces of the Wooshketaan clan had gone.

Howell discovered, in the Icy Straits area, the diaries of Joe and Muz Ibach-homesteaders who had been friends with Hollywood screen star John Barrymore.

John Barrymore sailed up in his 120-foot yacht on several occasions in the early 1930s and stopped by that island. [Howell] began looking at some of the writing about John Barrymore, in particular a biography of him that appeared in 1944.

Howell led Langdon into other biographies and literature about Barrymore, and a book of family photographs talking about Barrymore's relationship to that pole.

Because we knew it was from Tuxecan, we could see it's the same pole in the pictures of John Barrymore standing in front of the pole in front of his house. We knew he had taken it. From the family photograph book, there's actually a picture of the members of his crew on site with lines around the pole to take the pole away. The pole was taken in 1931.

Actor John Barrymore stands by a totem pole he stole from Tuxecan while yachting along the Southeast Alaska coast in 1931. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Stephen Langdon)

Actor John Barrymore stands by the totem pole he stole from Tuxecan while yachting along the Southeast Alaska coast in 1931. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Stephen Langdon)

Langdon read everything he could find about John Barrymore, looking for clues that would lead him to the totem.

Barrymore told his biographer that after the Ibachs saw what he had-that he had taken this pole, had it strapped to his yacht and was going to take it-they were horrified because they were aware of the significance of those kooteeya, the Tlingit term for the being of what is called the totem pole. They were potentially locations where human remains could be housed.

Barrymore was the top actor of his time. After taking the pole, he started having trouble remembering his lines and had blurred vision. Drunkenness overwhelmed him. His brother attributed his downfall as an actor and demise in 1942 to a curse from human remains kept in the pole, which Vincent and Mary Price bought in 1952. Langdon pieced together clues that led him from Vincent and Mary Price's divorce to her unusual decision in 1982 to donate the pole to a Honolulu museum.

There used to be something called the Honolulu Academy of Arts, but in the 2000s it turned itself into a museum. In 2013, I was going to an anthropological conference in Honolulu and it clicked in my mind.

Langdon wrote to the Klawock tribe, saying he thought the pole taken from Tuxecan in the 1930s might be in storage at the museum. He asked the tribe to designate him as its representative, so he could ask the museum whether they had the pole and if he could look at it.

In less than a week the museum director wrote me back and said yes, we've got a pole and sure, you can come see it as the tribal representative. I collected all my photographs that showed the position of the pole back into the 1880s in the village and through time how it had persisted in its location, and I took them with me. I met with the curator.

The curator showed Langdon papers from Mary Price in 1982, when the pole was shipped to them: the assessment of the pole when it came, the description of what had been done to the pole through time.

You could see in some of the pictures they tried to cement it, they put this steel girder up as a backbone, they drove bolts through it, they covered it with plastics and glues. So it had gone through a bunch of this very low-grade renovation. I showed him all the pictures showing the pole in place over time and the picture from the Barrymore collection with his crewmen with lines around the pole-four crewmen there with their little sailor hats. He looked and said it was a very clear case, that they didn't have a real purpose for this pole, it doesn't fit in with our collections. I said, might you be willing to consider under advisement a repatriation request? He said he was sure the museum director and board would be quite pleased to receive such a request.

Langdon showed photos to the Klawock tribe and wrote a repatriation request in the latter part of 2013.

When they saw the pictures, they were pretty amazed and excited: "Wow, that really is ours. It needs to come home." You have to understand, these are beings, a pole is a being. These acts of decapitation are extremely insulting desecrations, let alone the human remains that were in there. These are very important for them to have these objects returned as part of their heritage and patrimony.

The museum prepared a file on the pole and its history, with all the materials Langdon provided. The museum director and board authorized repatriation and assumed all costs of crating and shipping the pole back to the tribe. The tribe would have to come and receive it on the museum grounds.

UAA Professor Emeritus Stephen Langdon, right, stands with James Jensen, a curator at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and xxx Burke, xxx. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Stephen Langdon)

UAA Professor Emeritus Stephen Langdon, right, stands by segments of the Tuxecan totem pole. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Stephen Langdon)

But there was another step in the process of repatriation-the pole is a grave object that comes under federal guidelines. A statement appeared in the Federal Register in December 2014 and had to remain open for comment or objection for a month. On Jan. 28, 2015, I was in the office of the tribal administration when they found out the Federal Register was closed. There had been no objections.

The tribe's representatives journeyed to Hawaii to receive the pole in October. It is now stored in Klawock. Rowan's plan is to carve a fully formed version of the pole and have it honorifically erected at some point. New information came in after the repatriation process last spring.

A former student sent me a photo of Barrymore with the pole and a 1934 AP story discussing the process of putting up the pole at Barrymore's home. The story says that when the totem post arrived at the Barrymore residence, one of the sections contained the body of an Indian chieftain. This is the strongest evidence it was a mortuary pole but they didn't find out until they began the process of putting it up. It was in one of the sections where it never had been cut. When they began working on it, apparently the covering opened up and the human remains were discovered. The remains were removed because of the unease of Mrs. Barrymore.

Langdon told the tribe, which asked him to find out if those human remains are now located at a university or museum somewhere in the Los Angeles area.

Barrymore might have thrown them away, buried them, or responsibly turned them over. The bones are especially crucial. I was authorized in December to start that research. If those could be found, those would be of great interest to them, I'm sure. So the story continues down that particular line.

Want to learn more? Check out this April 20, 2015, story in The New Yorker; this Honolulu Star Advertiser story and KITV news segment, and a video link to a 2014 talk Langdon gave about the pole in Juneau.

Compiled by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement

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