Chief Little Owl: The story of the Bethany totem pole

Just as totems have served as symbols for different groups of people throughout the world, the Bethany landmark, also known as Chief Little Owl, has served as a symbol for the town and its residents, as well.

The 24-foot statue at the downtown entrance of Bethany Beach across from Route 26, depicting a north-facing eagle and Nanticoke Indian Chief that stands today, is actually the third installment of the monument since 1976, when sculptor Peter Wolf Toth donated the original to the town.

The work was Toth's 10th statue of his "Trail of Whispering Giants," which now consists of 74 similar statues ranging from 20 to 40 feet high, with at least one placed in each of the 50 states. There are also several in Canadian Providences and territories, all carved by Toth in an effort to honor Native Americans.

For his Delaware piece, Toth chose to honor the Nanticoke tribe, which have also been known as "The People of the Tidewater" — a group that has resided throughout Delaware for over 300 years.

Little Owl was Charles C. Clark, a World-War 1 veteran that served as Chief of the Naticokes from 1933 until his death in 1971. His grandmother, Lydia Clark, also known as Princess Nau-Gau-Okwa, was believed to be the last of the Nanticokes to speak their native language.

In 1992, a January storm dislodged the then 27-foot statue. When Town leaders had it taken to the ground for safety, they found that termites and rot had left it beyond repair. 

Although it has been reported that what's left of the original can be found at the Nanticoke Indian Museum in Millsboro, the museum does not actually have the remains, and stated that it was too damaged to keep.

Sculptor Dennis Beach carved the second statue, but it would only last until 2000 when it had to again be taken down because the wood began to rot due of weather damage.

It would be two years until the newest version of the statue would take its place with Toth being called upon once again. This time he used red cedar log from Alaska, which is expected to last anywhere from 50 to 150 years. The former statue, carved by Beach, was made of white oak.

To ensure further longevity for the new statue, it was also blessed by Charlie "Little Owl" Clark IV," a descendent of Little Owl who once served as assistant chief of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe.

There was a ceremony held on July 15, 2002, where then-State Sen. George H. Bunting claimed, "it's a landmark that says 'you're in Bethany,' and it pays honor to the Nanticoke nation. It ties us to our heritage."

Today Chief Little Owl's statue serves a variety of purposes. People use it as a reference when they're giving directions.They take pictures with it. They take pictures of it. They even tag themselves at "The Bethany Totem Pole" on social media.

More importantly though, it's a symbol. Not just a symbol for Bethany Beach, assuring vacationers of their arrival and being displayed on tee-shirts and on logos of local businesses — but a symbol of the proud heritage of Nanticoke people as well.

When the Alaskan red cedar finally wears, whether it be 50 years from now or 150, chances are most of us won't be around when the fourth Chief Little Owl statue goes up. But we can rest assured that the next statue will hold just as much meaning and history for the coming era as the the first three have for eras past, and that Bethany Beach will always be under the wise watch of their Nanticoke Chief.  v

— Story by Tripp Colonell