The Totem Thieves

Tlingit totem poles and long-house taken from Alaska for display at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893.

In 1899, railroad tycoon Edward Harriman put together an expedition of naturalists, scientists, painters and fellow robberbarons to explore the coast of southeast Alaska. The shrewd Harriman, head of the Union Pacific, even rented the services of John Muir, the father of environmentalism and founder of the Sierra Club, thus striking a bond between corporate villains and mainstream greens that thrives to this day.

The object of the two-month foray, which was heralded as the largest survey of its time, was to size-up Alaska’s riches (timber, gold, furs, oil) under the guise of scientific exploration. Karl Grove Albert, the famed geologist, picked at rocks. Bernard Fernow, the dean of the American forestry, cruised timber, calculating the number of board feet per acre. Edward Curtis lined up Haida and Tlingits for romantic mugshots and the painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes, taking Audubon’s tradition to a new level of barbarity, shot thousands of animals in order to render them in his sketchbook.

Muir mused with the poet John Burroughs (pal of Walt Whitman) and imparted his transcendental thoughts about glaciers and grizzlies, while he dined with some of the high priests of Mammon-men he had previously excoriated as the defilers of the God’s Temple.

Along the way Harriman and his gang engaged in a good bit of plunder of native villages from Ketchikan to…

Read more