Statues of 16th President Abraham Lincoln can be found nearly everywhere in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois: in front of the Illinois State Capitol, adjacent to Lincoln’s Tomb, across the street from the Presidential Library, and… on top of a totem pole.
Stretching dozens of feet in the air—even taller than Honest Abe himself—the Proud Raven Totem Pole was originally carved in the 1880s in Tongass Village in southeastern Alaska by the local Tlingit people, a tribe of Native Americans who originally inhabited a large stretch the Pacific Northwest coast. However no one is quite sure why the Tlingits chose to put Lincoln’s likeness atop the pole.
Many attribute the origin of this pole to commemorating Lincoln for helping end slavery. Others believe the totem pole was a “shame pole” associating the president with the American imperialism of the mid-1800s, which wiped out nearly 50 percent of the Tlingit population with diseases like smallpox.
Although the Tlingits did make a shame pole for former Secretary of State William Seward for the exact same reason (and more recently, of an upside down, Pinocchio-nosed Lee Raymond, the CEO of ExxonMobil, for not cleaning up a local oil spill) the Illinois State Museum thinks the Tlingit’s reasoning was different.
According to the museum’s curator Jonathan Reyman, the Raven Clan chief commissioned a carver in 1883 to commemorate the first white man the village had ever seen. The problem? The carver had no idea what a white man looked like.
The story goes that the carver went to either the local post office or the local army base and asked for a picture of a white man. The picture they gave him was from Lincoln’s 1864 presidential campaign. And, with no other white men to base his image on, the carver simply put Lincoln—top hat, suit, and all—atop the totem pole.
However, this historical reasoning was unknown to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who, in the 1930s, thought it would be perfect to honor Lincoln and his good deeds by creating two replicas. One of these replicas has been brought back to Alaska and currently resides in Totem Bight State Historical Park.
But that wasn’t enough. In 1945, Illinois State Historical Library curator Jay Monahan travelled all the way to Alaska and cut the original Proud Raven Totem Pole in three. Monahan’s purchase included two of these three segments: the top (Lincoln’s body) and bottom, as well as “a case of Coca Cola and a crate of fresh oranges” to top it off.
Despite all of these past versions, the current reproduction in Springfield wasn’t constructed until the late 1960s, and not out of wood, but out of fiberglass.
Whether or not the Proud Raven Totem Pole was meant to shame Lincoln or to commemorate a generic white man is unknown, but despite its disputed origins it has clearly made its mark in multiple cities across the country.