September 13, 2017 Ketchikan, Alaska – Bucket List Blog # 5
Ketchikan – The Road Not Taken
I have always loved Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” – especially the last line that says, “And I took the one less traveled and that has made the difference.” Although I am by upbringing not inclined to stray too far from the beaten path, there are times when I feel the need to do something a little differently. I have found that this makes me far more flexible and open minded and often puts wonderful serendipities into my life that are always among some of my favorite memories. I don’t actually plan these things, but when it appears I may be lost or encounter what some might think is negative, I cautiously welcome it and follow it through to the end. Such was my experience in Ketchikan.
As I walked toward the visitor’s center located on Front St. that overlooks the Ketchikan harbor, I saw a typical fishing village. Quaint, commercial fishing boats bounced in the harbor waters with two giant cruise ships towering over them to create a postcard image of the two major economies that support the people there – commercial fishing and tourism. I stood on Front Street looking at my map and the city thinking about what I was going to do. I had taken one organized tour in Juneau, but had chosen to see Sitka on my own. I was glad I had done that and planned to do the same in Ketchikan. Find the library and free Wi-Fi, and then do the self-guided two mile walking tour through the city followed by some Christmas shopping before returning to the ship.
There was one problem, however. Our time in Ketchikan was the shortest of all the port stays and the city was bigger than Sitka. As I stood there deciding what to do, I saw a small van that said “free shuttle” into the city. Today, I would ride. When I stepped on the bus, I asked the driver, “where is the library and free Wi-Fi?” She told me that the library was on the other side of the island and she did not go there. She said there was free Wi-Fi at the McDonald’s in the Plaza that was one of her last stops. What to do? An opportunity for “the road not taken.” I got off the shuttle at the first stop in front of the Totem Pole Museum. The Museum was located atop a hill in a wooded area fed by Ketchikan Stream which was filled with salmon. The bus driver said that residents were free to fish there as well as the harbor and suggested that I have a look at it before going into the Museum. The stream was clear and cold and filled with large salmon. Impressive. I walked up the hill and entered the Museum.
After I purchased my ticket, the clerk told me the group coming in was a private group and I could surreptitiously enjoy the commentary. I recognized the group as one from the Eurodam. The narrator was Tlingit and shared stories about the totem poles by referring to her own heritage. As I listened to her, I realized I had heard all of this from Mame in Glacier Bay, so I walked around the corner and began reading about the exhibits on display as the narrator’s voice became more distant. These exhibits were ancient pieces found all over the area and preserved like the ancient mummies of Egypt. As I read and looked at the displays, the totem pole culture of the Tlingit began to come to life.
Unlike the members of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Tlingit believed in ownership of property and the accumulation of wealth and the totems were the expression of this. Elaborate totems were placed in front of the plank houses that lined the harbor to tell the history of the clan that lived there. Other totems recorded the potlatches of a village chieftain to establish his status as a powerful member of the community. Potlatches were celebrations of a birthday, wedding or successful salmon run. There was gift giving, but gifts were given by the hosts to the attending guests – a way of showing a higher rank than others in the community. But potlatches were more than just celebrations, they were also religious rituals.
After Christian missionaries arrived in the 19th Century, the practice of the potlatch disappeared along with all the other aspects of the Tlingit culture during the time of assimilation. I stood looking at the houses as they looked in the 19th Century; I became aware of someone standing behind me. I turned and saw a man with silver white hair who looked a lot like Kenny Rogers. He must have been reading my mind because he pointed to some of the plank houses and said, “Those houses with the horizontal planks and windows show the influence of the missionaries.” That was all he said and then he turned and walked away leaving me thinking of the blanket destruction of a people and all their monuments that kept their stories and history alive. I left the Museum thinking about Frost’s poem. I had taken the road less traveled and because of that I had a new perspective on some of the challenges we are facing in our polarized society today.
That night, I went to the evening trivia and, as usual, played with a group from Seattle. After the game ended one of the men in the group chose to ask me about my thoughts on the Confederate monuments. I suppose he asked me because he knew I was from Kentucky. After my encounter at the Museum, I had spent a lot of time thinking about this very thing. I said the following, “I think all people’s monuments belong in a museum, not on display to be idolized. Every culture struggles with good and evil and many times when one group of people overcome another and establish dominance, the stories become distorted and the concept of what is good and what is evil changes based on who won. It is the responsibility of the leaders to tell the stories with compassion and honesty so their descendants can sort out the lessons of history and decide what they believe to be good and evil.” That’s all I said. The man acknowledged my comment with a nod of his head and a tight smile. The rest was silence.