Alaska News

ArtBeat: Sitka's 'Centennial' pole a showpiece of modern totemry

In Monday's article about Tommy Joseph, the visiting artist who spoke on Tlingit armor at the Anchorage Museum earlier this week, we mentioned his part in the "Wooch Jin Dul Shat Kooteeya" or "Holding Hands Centennial" totem pole at Sitka National Historical Park. A description didn't make it into the story, but the National Park Service provided some information and Joseph was able to tell me more about this remarkable pole, created for the 100th anniversary of the park.

Most large poles are, of necessity, collaborations, but the Centennial Pole represents a particularly impressive group effort. Joseph was the main designer and team leader, but he gave wide latitude to his colleagues. "The top design is mine," he said, "the ying-yang Raven and Eagle." The juxtaposed clan figures suggest some of the more iconoclastic work of the late abstract artist James Schoppert.

Below that is a buffalo, symbol of the park service, with a raven's-tail blanket over one shoulder. The blanket is based on a design by prominent weaver and basket maker Teri Rofkar of Sitka.

The bottom figure, which seems to draw the most camera shots, is a fascinating female portrait by Donnie Varnell, a Haida carver from Joseph's hometown of Ketchikan. Flanked by male and female salmon, she represents Mother Earth.

Varnell is famous -- some might say notorious -- for introducing anime or comic-book style images into his totemic art. He made the "Flower Girl" and "Wolf Boy" house posts for Ptarmigan Elementary School in Anchorage. He's used a figure similar to the Centennial Mother Earth in other work.

"I left that whole part of the pole clear for Donnie," Joseph said. "But there were a lot of people working on it. There were a bunch of fishermen in town waiting for the herring opening and they all carved on it. Otherwise it would have been impossible; we only had three weeks to do it."

The Centennial pole features a remarkable asymmetry, something of a hallmark of the younger generation of carvers, which includes brothers Joe and T.J. Young in addition to Joseph and Varnell. In contrast to the solidly columnesque classic poles of antiquity, a little deliberate off-centeredness introduces a feeling of motion.


For people who like to parse the arts, it's a great time to be witnessing the creation of new poles. But I wonder if the old guys didn't know something. As the paint fades (and it's going fast on the "Flower Girl"), the more complex and detailed designs lose definition and become hard to "read," in the visual sense of the word. The old, big and mostly symmetric designs continue to project their august aesthetic personalities with patent clarity. Even a heavily decayed antique pole can retain its power.

At least, that's my general impression. Regardless of how individual examples of new totem styles fare as time wears on them, the Centennial Pole is probably a work of genius.

In addition to marking the 100th anniversary of Alaska's oldest national park, the pole was also intended to honor the decades-old partnership between the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center and the Park Service. Ironically, that long-standing agreement ended a few weeks after the pole went up in 2011, though individuals involved with the center continue to perform contract work for the park.

Joseph will be working on the restoration of a different pole at the Anchorage Museum 1-3 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. The public is welcome to watch and ask questions. The event is free with museum admission.

Farewell to a veteran and friend of the arts

We mourn the passing on June 1 of Edward Blahous, former chairman of the Mayor's Arts Commission, super booster of arts among other good causes in Alaska and a really good singer. Ed's obituary ran on June 4. A former Air Force colonel, he will be buried at 10:30 a.m. on Monday at Fort Richardson National Cemetery.

War talk

In the May 25 story about Charles Foster Jones, the pioneer Alaskan killed by the Japanese military on Attu during World War II, some readers didn't quite get what I was trying to convey about the unique historic position of the Battle of Attu. Part of the fault lies in my attempt to keep the word count down. But here are more words that, I hope, will clarify things:

The Battle of Attu in 1943 was the first land battle between the official American military and an invading foreign army on United States soil in North America since the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 -- and the last, we hope.

The Civil War doesn't count, since it was not a foreign invasion but fellow Americans shooting at each other.

Nor do the Indian wars meet the definition, since the U.S. government considered that it was fighting on territory it had every right to occupy via treaty, however dubious and debatable the claims might be.

Nor does the Alamo, since Texas wasn't part of the U.S. when it happened and wouldn't be for most of a decade after.

Nor does the Mexican-American War, since North America, as used by the Associated Press and, hence, the Daily News, means the continent north of the Rio Grande; but there's argument about that.

We previously noted that Alaska was not a state during World War II; neither was Louisiana in 1815. The last time the U.S. Army battled a foreign invader in an actual United State may have been August 1814, when the British came through Maryland en route to burning Washington, D.C. But scholars of the War of 1812 are free to disabuse me of that speculation.

The question of whether the civilians of Attu were prisoners of war has also come under discussion. Some sources, notably Webster's and, I'm told, the "Oxford Companion to World War II," specify that POW status pertains only to persons in uniform; alternate terms, like internees, are used for civilians.

Other sources, including Encyclopedia Britannica and the American Heritage Dictionary, say POW applies to all people held captive by enemy forces during wartime, regardless of military status.

I tend to side with the second understanding of the word, not because I think one dictionary or linguist has more authority than another in the matter, though sometimes they do. Rather, my opinion stems from deference to the Attuans who used the term to describe themselves. The late Nick Golodoff in particular once told me in no uncertain terms, "I was a POW." He seemed to take a bit of pride in the designation.


It also seems to me that words like "internee" or "detainee" soften the brutality of incarceration during belligerencies. They're the kind of words government officials use to obfuscate unpleasant facts. But, those feelings aside, the floor is open to discussion.

A reminder that Mary Breu, niece of Etta Jones (Charles' spouse) and author of "Last Letters from Attu," will give a talk at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 12, at the Anchorage Museum. The public is welcome to attend; use the Seventh Avenue entrance.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.