Researching Totem Teddy

Wendy Wright

Wendy Wright

Editor's Note: Wendy Wright, a UNC Anthropology major who dug deep into university history for a research project she'll present during this year's Research Day, shares some of her thoughts about the project and what she learned about a totem pole from Alaska that changed the course of history at the school.

As incoming freshmen, UNC students are given the infamous "Fear the Claw" T-shirt as their first step in representing the university and the Bears. I too was given this shirt, and at my first homecoming game I shouted "UNC BEARS!" during the school song.

It wasn't until two-and-a-half years later that I even wondered where our mascot comes from. Then one day, out of nowhere, I got a call from Sally McBeth, the chair of UNC's Anthropology department, offering me an internship researching Totem Teddy and collecting images for a website showcasing the Totem Teddy story, but I had no idea what the story was behind the totem pole.

As I dove into the archives of Michener Library, I found out that the UNC mascot was changed in 1923 from the Teachers to the Bears. This happened because Andrew Thompson, who graduated from what is now UNC in 1897 and became the superintendent of schools in southeastern Alaska, somehow obtained a totem pole and sent it to his alma mater.

After arriving on campus, the totem pole was named Totem Teddy, probably in response to Teddy Roosevelt, and was prominently displayed to be adored by all.

As I found picture after picture and morsel after morsel of information, I grew increasingly attached to Totem Teddy. One of my favorite stories is that all freshmen were required to bow down to Totem Teddy whenever they saw it.

Now, of course, no UNC students bow down to Totem Teddy because it's been returned to its rightful place and since 2003 has been in Angoon, Alaska, with the Bear Clan of the Tlingit tribe from whom it was originally taken.

The most memorable moment that I have had so far on this project was discovering that the original bear from the top of the totem pole, which was damaged by vandals from other schools, woodpeckers and the elements over the years, may still be in a storage room somewhere on campus, and that the bear that was sent back to Alaska may have been a cement replica, which is why it weighed around 600 pounds.

I remember feeling like an important member of the team as well as a legitimate anthropologist. That moment made this project not just another summary or book report on research someone else had already done. I was doing the investigating and other people were actually interested and intrigued by the information that I found.

My presentation at Research Day will include a recommendation for suggested actions and additional research to verify my preliminary findings, but whatever happens, I hope that all UNC students are eventually told the amazing story of Totem Teddy and the actions of UNC, which in accordance with the Native American Grave Rights and Repatriation Act, helped get him back home.

For more about the story of Totem Teddy, visit the Totem Teddy website.

- Wendy Wright, Senior Anthropology Major

Related: UNC to Celebrate Story of ‘Totem Teddy' with Photo Exhibit



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