A stolen totem pole that went from the garden decor of two golden-age Hollywood actors to the basement of a Hawaii museum was returned Thursday to American Indians from Alaska.
Screen legend John Barrymore was traveling along the Alaska coast by yacht and directed crew members to take the totem pole from an unoccupied village in 1931, said University of Alaska Anchorage professor Steve Langdon, who has long researched the object. They sawed it in three pieces.
Barrymore, star of “Grand Hotel” and grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore, displayed the pole in the garden of his California estate.
After Barrymore’s death, actor Vincent Price and his wife bought the item and also used it as a yard decoration. The couple donated it to the Honolulu Academy of Arts (now the Honolulu Museum of Art) in 1981.
Langdon’s interest in the piece came from a visit to an Alaska museum where he saw a photo of Price standing next to the approximately 40-foot-tall pole. “It was totally out of place,” he recalled. “Here’s this recognizable Hollywood figure in a backyard estate with a totem pole … that was surrounded by cactus.”
Langdon learned the pole had been used for burials and that there were remains of a man inside before Barrymore had it erected at his home. Langdon does not know what happened to the remains after they were removed from the pole.
Museum officials didn’t know the pole was stolen. With permission from tribal leaders, Langdon traveled to Honolulu in 2013 to examine the pole, setting into motion a repatriation process funded by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
On Thursday seven Tlingit tribal members who traveled to Honolulu from the southeastern village of Klawock wore lei, sang somber songs, handed out gifts and thanked Hawaii for taking good care of the pole.
“We, too, also are ocean people,” said Jonathan Rowan, master carver and cultural educator. “We live on an island also.”
With the scent of cedar wafting in the air, his daughter Eva Rowan brushed three feathers along the pole pieces bearing carved images of a killer whale, a raven, an eagle and a wolf.
“It gives my heart great peace that my ancestors can go home,” she said. “I feel my father’s people here. I feel my grandfather’s people here, giving us strength right now.”
Only the top section of the pole was displayed briefly in the museum, and the pole spent most of its years in Honolulu in a climate-controlled basement.
“I take some comfort in the fact that we’ve taken good care of it,” said Stephan Jost, the museum’s director.
It was among more than 100 totem poles that once stood in the old village of Tuxecan on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, which was inhabited by the Tlingit people, the museum said.
Of the original Tuxecan poles, only two remain, both in Klawock, the village of 800 people where the tribe moved, according to the museum.
The pieces were cradled in packing foam in wooden crates that museum workers sealed after the ceremony. The pole will leave the museum today and set sail for Alaska on Tuesday.