It once held an esteemed position in the living room of the Bath Township home of Jim and Vanita Oelschlager.
When their grandkids first saw it some 10 or 12 years ago, Vanita Oelschlager said, they were downright frightened by it.
The rare Native American totem pole, carved by hand from naturally pigmented red, green, black and white cedar wood and standing some 6 feet tall, is one of the centerpieces of the new art exhibit at the University of Akron’s Center for the History of Psychology.
Believed to have been crafted more than 100 years ago in Ketchikan, Alaska, the aptly titled Totem Pole With Frog, Eagle and Fish is topped by a wide-eyed eagle’s head with its white and burnt-red wings fully spread.
Dozens of area art lovers and university officials flocked to see it at Sunday’s opening public reception, and some were even lucky enough to hear Vanita Oelschlager’s personal story of how it was brought here.
The 125-piece exhibit of Native American art, tools, clothing, pottery and other cultural objects — all loaned to the center from the Oelschlagers’ collection — is open to the public through the middle of October.
Until now, the Oelschlagers displayed the treasures only in their home, offices and summer retreat at Oak Lodge in western Pennsylvania, university officials said.
David B. Baker, director of the Center for the History of Psychology, said the hope is that the gallery will become a base of research and study for local citizens and students from elementary to high school levels.
“It’s just the beginning of something much larger. Our goal is to create a world-class museum space and educational facility that will be something all the citizens of Akron can enjoy,” Baker said.
Each of the carefully displayed pieces, mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries, were individually researched for their origin by the center’s anthropology research director, Lynn Metzger, and a team of university students led by Francisca Ugalde, 29, a native of Chile who is a graduate student in arts administration, and Rachel Fox, 28, a recent graduate of the university’s school of anthropology.
Fox said she feels that students who view the exhibit will come away with a greater understanding of the varied Native American cultures. Each one, she said, adapted its own tools, art and trade materials to fit the environment in which it lived.
“I think, so many times, when we think of American Indians, we just think of them as one, homogenous group. This exhibit will help in the understanding of each, separate culture by region,” Fox said.
The totem pole, for example, originally was made by Native Americans in rugged northern Alaska.
Vanita Oelschlager said it took plenty of persuasion for her and her husband to obtain it from an Alaskan they called “the Relic Woman.”
“She had a store with Indian relics in it. We wanted this totem pole, and kept asking for it for years,” Oelschlager said.
“Finally, she called and said, ‘OK, I need the money, I’ll sell it to you.’ So she packaged it up and sent it to the Cleveland airport in two pieces.”
But she said airport official were highly suspicious of the fearsome looking arrival and made the Oelschlagers open it up, thinking it was a coffin, before they would agree to release it.
Viewing the Oelschlager Collection is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.
The history center, in the old Roadway Express building, is at 73 College St., at the corner of College and Mill Street in downtown Akron.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at email@example.com.