ELI TAIT TOTEM IDENTIFICATION
Like the other carvers of Metlakatla, Eli Tait had a consistent and unique style. This
summary may help to identify his poles. It applies particularly to the "good luck" totems
with the speckled bear. A pole that doesn't have nearly all these features is probably not
his, or to put it another way, every Tait I have seen shares all but one or two of the following:
The focus is on how the poles are made, not the subject matter; many carvers in Metlakatla
made totems with a speckled bear, sideways salmon, and eagle; or with these plus a human
face at the bottom; or models of Chief Kian's or Johnson's pole; only the finer details of their
carving styles differ. Tait's poles are made of a different wood than most of the similar
poles, which are usually red cedar; Tait's are finer-grained, probably yellow cedar. Bases
may be either circles cut from a branch, or a rectangular base made from dimensional stock,
hand-finished and usually painted green, possibly black. There is always a section of pole left square, just at the base, lending definition to this area. The area between this section and the bear is painted green.
Tait always signed his poles, though the ink fades to a pale lavender and then near
invisibility. He usually wrote "good luck totem" on the back of the speckled bear ones.
Also always included "Metlakatla Alaska" and identified the figures. For models of existing
poles he named the pole and its current location (i.e. "Chief Johnson's totem, Ketchikan").
Even on faded examples, traces of the ink usually remain. The writing is in old-style cursive,
hard to read for one not familiar with it; but a style manual will show that the first letter,
which looks much like a printed "J" is actually a cursive "T." A cursive J would contain
two loops not present in the signature; an F would have a crossbar. Comparing the other
letters to those in Metlakatla; the "i" is dotted; the final letter is not a k. Poles will
sometimes be listed in catalogs or auctions as by "Ed Fail," Eli Jack, Ed Fait, Ed Fack, etc.
Tait's poles are usually much smaller than the similar ones; a Mather is seldom under 9;"
Tait's often under 7" and the smallest I have is 5;" the bear is under 3" tall. The carving
itself is much more detailed than on similar poles; see specifics below; eyes are incised, not
just painted; similarly with ears and mouths, and even teeth are carved in rather than just
painted. Note especially the "break" in the nose, also mentioned below.
On totems with wings, the wings (viewed from the back) are rounded on the edges, and
partially inset into the back. Not just nailed on.
Eagle on "Good Luck Totem:"
The eagles wings are usually carved before being painted (I have one exception), i.e. the
carved cuts show black. Compare to similar maker's where the cuts are made after painting
and show bare wood. Both Tait's and the similar ones have 4 vertical cuts (I've got one Tait
with 5); Tait's always have 8 small triangular cuts in 2 rows above these; one similar pole I
have seen has only 7. The eagle's chest rarely has a white undercoat. (The white chest is a
mark of another carver, Boyd; Tai t occassionally used it on poles other than the good luck ones, but I've only seen one "good luck" example with a white chest). There are tiny U-forms painted in red and blue above the eyes on the chest, and above these there is a row of 3 tiny ovoid-like figures (these last not present on the 5" pole--no space.) Each of the eagle's legs has 9 dots arranged in a 3x3 pattern. Most similar poles lack these details.
Bear on "good luck totem"
There are carved U's in the bears ears, and the ears are set at about a 45 degree angle; they
are not flat on the sides as on similar poles. Likewise, the eyes are set at an angle, not flat
on the front. Pupils of eyes are carved in. There are faces on the bear's paws, not often
present on similar poles; and the eyes and mouths on these tiny faces are also carved. The
stippling is very fine; it is made of short lines, measures about 16 per inch horizontal, 10 per
inch vertical. By contrast, similar other poles often have one per inch, and they are often not
lines but dots. The stippling follows the bear's body contours on forehead, and especially on
the sides, where it curves around the arms and legs. The bear's nose is defined by a sharp
horizontal cut from eye to eye; this is a very distinctive detail once you learn to look for it,
and is not present on similar poles, where the snout is simply rounded in this area.
Detailed carving is also found on the figures on models of real poles, where eyes show
incised cuts; and on some examples, the eyelid lines are raised, i.e. the wood has been cut
away so as to leave the eyelids in relief. The faces on owls, frogs, and the fish being held
by Fog-woman show carved details, not just painted; toes and fingers carved in great detail.