The original totem poles were commissioned by families or chiefs to commemorate an event, to make a statement, and sometimes to deride another family who failed an obligation, such as nonpayment of a debt. The old photographs showed numbers of totem poles standing before waterside villages facing toward the sea, the first thing seen by a visitor. Clan symbols like the raven, the eagle, and the frog stare out from the poles. Some poles told a story. Bold in color and striking in design, the totem pole message is read from the top down. Today the totem pole is a kind of logo for Alaska.
Totem poles, some as tall as thirty feet, can be seen near Ketchikan at Totem Bight State Historical Park and at Saxman Village, next to Ketchikan. In Ketchikan itself the city finances a Totem Heritage Center where totem poles and other examples of totemic art have been collected from village sites where the damp climate was causing rapid decay. Sitka, too, has a National Historic Park and an Indian Culture Center. The Alaska State Museum in Juneau also displays totemic art.
Alaskans look upon themselves as a special group, frontierspeople separated from the lower forty-eight. When they go south it is going outside. Only five-and-one-half hours north of Hawaii, many Alaskans vacation in Hawaii, especially on Maui.