Totem Pole Nabbed by Hollywood Actor Returns Home to Alaska

The story gets national headlines for its Hollywood backstory, but it turns out to be a deeply moving cultural exchange.

Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawai‘i writer on arts, culture and food.


The top third of the totem pole on view in the museum’s Kīna‘u Courtyard in 1985.
Photos: Lesa Griffith 

The Honolulu Museum of Art recently handed over a totem pole it had owned since 1981 to the Tlingit people of Alaska. The event generated coverage in publications from People to National Public Radio, not because they were so excited about an example of cultural repatriation, but because of how the totem pole had made its circuitous way to O‘ahu—starting with John Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s Hollywood superstar grandfather. But for museum staff, the event was quietly one of the most momentous, moving and educational they had experienced.


“We are so happy and honored to be here with you,” said Jonathan Rowan, a master carver and cultural educator from Klawock, Alaska, to a small gathering at the museum on Oct. 22. He is a Tlingit, an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, and was in Honolulu for a ceremony to mark the passing of the kooteeyaa, or totem pole, from the museum to its original owners, the Tlingit tribe of Klawock, after 84 years of being in faraway lands.


In 1931, Barrymore, an enthusiastic yachtsman, had his crew remove a totem pole (after sawing it into three pieces) from an abandoned village he spotted while cruising the Alaska coast. The totem pole wound up as a garden accouterment at Barrymore’s Hollywood home. Upon his death, the totem pole was purchased by Vincent Price, who also used it as a garden centerpiece. Price and his wife, Mary, donated the totem pole to the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1981. One segment of the totem pole was displayed in the museum’s Kīna‘u Courtyard in the mid-1980s. The New Yorker magazine chronicled the saga of this object of cultural patrimony in its April 2015 article The Tallest Trophy by Paige Williams.


The research and determined quest of Steve Langdon, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska, led to the repatriation of the totem pole to Klawock. Kooteeyaa depict emblematic crests, among the most important possessions of Tlingit clans because of their association with clan identity and origin stories. After being contacted by Langdon, the museum determined that the totem pole is an object of cultural patrimony, and proposed that it be repatriated to the Tlingit people in Klawock. 


This project was made possible by a grant from the National Park Service, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, with support from Matson, Alaska Marine Lines and Alaska Airlines.


Accompanying Jonathan Rowan were his daughter Eva Rowan, a council member of the Klawock Cooperative Association; and Klawock tribal administrator Lawrence Armour. The group was also joined by Armour’s children Bryan and Alissa Armour who live in Makakilo, and experienced their first Tlingit ceremony at the museum.

Okalani Tallett performed a hula for the Tlingit visitors as kumu hula Vicky Takamine Holt did an oli.
Photo: Lesa Griffith 


The intimate ceremony was held outside the museum’s loading bay where the three custom-made crates holding the totem pole stood. Kumu hula Vicky Takamine Holt performed an oli, as Okalani Tallett did a hula, to cleanse the air in preparation for the totem pole to return home untethered and free to start its new life. Then Jonathan Rowan said, “We too are an ocean people, and live on an island. Thank you for having us on your land for this ceremony. In our land, we go to our opposites to take care of things, so I go to my daughter to ask her to take care of this ceremony.” At that, Eva held three eagle feathers and lightly brushed them over the three sections of the kooteeyaa.


The day before, the Rowans and Armour had visited the museum to see the totem pole for the first time. They had seen archival images of the pole, but, after seeing it in person, the only way Jonathan could describe the experience was to cup his hands in front of his chest, symbolizing a heart full beyond words.


At the ceremony, the Rowans sang two sacred Tlingit songs, compositions they call “cry songs,” that echoed Jonathan’s cupped hands. He sang a slow, reverent eagle song as he marked a slow beat on a handheld elk-skin drum. Then she sang a raven song in a clear, uplifting alto.


Before singing, Johnathan shared a story about his people.


“Before my grandfather’s time, there were young nephews who went hunting and they saw a strange bird on the horizon. When the story was told by our ancestors, they titled it ‘First White Man.’ But we titled it differently. Uncle asked, ‘What did you see nephews?’ And they said ‘We saw a great white bird, and water beetles started coming toward us. We were taught to fear nothing, so they waited. They come to find that the water beetles were boats transporting sailors, who took the nephews back to their ship. On board were dark-skinned people, and the ship’s captain asked them to come over, and they said, ‘kanaka, kanaka.’ It took me a long time to figure out what that was. It was your people. We have a longstanding tie.”


It was a moving oral history that illustrated a historical connection between Alaska and Hawai‘i, and made it seem not so unlikely that a Tlingit totem pole somehow wound up in a museum basement in Honolulu.


Jonathan went on to say that the nephews recounted their experience aboard the European ship. “They tried to make us eat this stuff that looked like maggots. It was rice, and it is now one of our staples.”

The Tlingit representatives presented museum leaders with a hand-painted cedar box, which will go on view in the museum on Dec. 21.
Photos: Lesa Griffith 


Rowan and Armour then approached a shrouded object that was sitting on a table, and pulled off its black cloth to reveal a stunning carved cedar box hand-painted with Tlingit symbols that included a salmon, a raven and an eagle. Inside was a Tlingit bounty—smoked salmon and traditional necklaces—that they distributed to everyone. The box’s cedar was so fragrant, you could smell it from 25 feet away. The box will soon go on view in the museum’s gallery of the art of the Americas on Dec. 21.


“So it is with heart overflowing that we will be able to take this back home and be with family members again,” said Rowan, who explained that totem poles were containers that held Tlingit ancestors’ remains. “We will have large dinners, and speeches, to welcome back the totem pole. Again, in our culture, we have to have balance, so again I call on my daughter to respond.”


Eva balanced her father’s words with her own: “Precious children of this land, thank you. Being here to support my father has been an honor. It gives my heart great peace to know my ancestors are returning home.”


The museum says goodbye, the Klawock Tlingit say hello to the totem pole: (left to right) Klawock Cooperative Association council member Eva Rowan; Okalani Tallett; kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine; Tlingit master carver Jonathan Rowan; Bryan Armour; Klawock tribal administrator Lawrence Armour; Alissa Armour; museum trustee Watters O. Martin; chair of the museum’s board of trustees Violet Loo; museum director Stephan Jost; and vice chair of the museum’s board of trustees Josh Feldman.


Out of respect for the importance of native cultures in Hawai‘i and Alaska, Matson donated the shipment of the totem pole from Honolulu to Seattle. The pole departed on the morning of Oct. 26 aboard the vessel Manoa. It is scheduled to arrive at tis ultimate desitnationCraig, Alaska—on Nov. 12.


In Klawock, Jonathan will carve a replica of the totem pole to be placed in the town’s new totem pole park. The original pole, which is estimated to have been carved in the late 1800s, will be placed in a climate-controlled environment.


“When Professor Steve Langdon contacted us, it became clear from his research that the totem pole was a sacred object of cultural patrimony and we immediately decided the totem pole should be returned home,” said Honolulu Museum of Art director Stephan Jost. “There is no gray area in this case. It is the right thing to do, and the legal thing to do. The ceremony by Jonathan Rowan and his daughter Eva Rowan was so moving and connected two cultures that share many aspects. It has been an honor to have preserved the totem pole for the last 34 years and an even bigger honor to send it home where it belongs.”


Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.