Started in 1976, the Totem Heritage Center functions both as a museum of 19th century totem poles and as a center for educating the public and promoting the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures. The totem poles at the Center are from former tribe sites around Ketchikan. With an increase in tourism and a renewed pride in Southeast Alaskan Native heritage, the poles were in danger of being destroyed by vandals, stolen by those seeking souvenirs, or simply rotting away in the elements. Many remnants of the uninhabited villages had already been damaged. Fearful of losing this link to the state's past, a field survey was conducted in 1969 by the Alaska State Museum in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute and Native elders. The area that had been deserted ranged from Kake to the Canadian border was searched by air and on foot. What was revealed was disturbing. Of the hundreds of totem poles that used to accent the landscape, only 44 remained.
The original owners were tracked, whenever possible, to give permission for the poles to be relocated. If the actual owners, or their descendants, couldn't be identified, the clan itself consented. In 1970, Alaska Totems: A Heritage in Peril was started. This recovery effort took totem poles from Old Kasaan, the eastern half of Prince of Wales Island, Village Island, Cat Passage, and on Tongass Island.
The City of Ketchikan was honored with being chosen as the relocation site due to the former number of Haida and Tlingit villages that were near the city. The Totem Heritage Center was constructed in 1976 in a beautiful wooded landscape that was easily accessible by both locals and tourists. In addition to the preserved totem poles, visitors can see other Native totem poles and other Alaskan artwork and crafts.
The Center also offers classes, seminars, and workshops to teach Northwest Coast Native art, crafts, and culture. In addition to learning a new skill or expanding one's artistic abilities, students are awarded a Certificate of Merit and earn credit from the University of Alaska. Current classes include basket weaving, wood carving, and clothing design and they are offered throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Registration is required.