A totem pole taken by the Hollywood actor John Barrymore from an Alaska tribe 84 years ago is being returned to the village after decorating the yards of California mansions for years and being stored in the basement of a museum in Hawaii.
The 30-foot-tall carved wooden obelisk belonging to the Tlingit tribe is due to reach Alaska on Nov. 6 from Honolulu, capping a journey that began in 1931 when Barrymore took it during a sailing trip along the coast.
“Barrymore must have strapped the pole to his 120-foot yacht and sailed away, continuing on his voyage northward,” said University of Alaska professor emeritus Steve Langdon, who has spent years tracking down the pole.
Langdon said a book published in 2001 contained a photograph showing Barrymore’s crew members loading the pole onto his yacht with a caption that he “purchased” it at the ancestral village of Tuxecan on Prince of Wales Island.
Apart from that, Langdon said he has been unable to find evidence from the tribe or beyond that suggests it was a legitimate acquisition.
Barrymore, a screen actor and grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore, put the pole on display in the garden of his California mansion, Langdon said.
In 1944, American actor Vincent Price and his wife bought it from Barrymore’s estate and installed it in their yard, where it stayed until 1981 when the couple donated it to what would become the Honolulu Museum of Art, Langdon said.
Langdon tracked the pole to the museum after finding a photo showing Price beside it in a yard. He went to Hawaii on behalf of the tribe in 2013.
“It became clear from his research that the totem pole was a sacred object of cultural patrimony and we immediately decided the totem pole should be returned home,” said Stephan Jost, director of the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Several members of the tribe traveled from Klawock, their present-day village of roughly 800 residents, to Honolulu for a transfer ceremony on Thursday that included music and an exchange of gifts, the museum said.
The pole is to be placed in the tribe’s cultural heritage center, with a replica planned for the village, Langdon said.