Book review: A revival of culture and traditional arts in Southeast is illustrated in ‘Tsimshian Eagle’

Tsimshian Eagle: A Culture Bearer’s Journey

David Boxley with Steve Quinn; Chin Music Press, 2023; 256 pages; $39.95.

“There’s been an amazing rebirth of totem poles for all the Southeast Alaska tribes: Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian,” longtime carver David Boxley writes. “They are a living art form that is of central importance to Native culture on the Northwest coast.”

Boxley has been central to that revival, especially among the Tsimshian people of his home village of Metlakatla. For over 40 years he’s been carving totem poles, helping to lead a cultural revival that has restored a nearly lost tradition. In “Tsimshian Eagle,” his recent book combining memoir with fine art photography, he tells how this happened.

Today, Boxley is internationally known and his totem poles and other exquisite artworks are seen in museums, galleries and personal collections around the world, as well as in public places from Seattle to Juneau and beyond. What many who appreciate his work might not know is that he is largely self-taught. When he carved his first pole, there was no one to teach him.

Boxley grew up in Metlakatla, located on Annette Island near the southernmost reach of the Alaska Panhandle. His mother suffered from trauma and alcoholism, so he was raised by his grandparents. In the early pages he gives an account of his childhood in the remote village in the 1960s, a time when many traditional practices of the Tsimshian had long been suppressed by missionaries and the government.

A good student, Boxley’s initial goal was to be a teacher and a basketball coach, and for a while, he succeeded. After attending college in Washington, he returned to Metlakatla and taught and coached for several years.


Boxley had strong relationships with both of his grandparents, something he references repeatedly throughout this book. It was his grandmother’s passing in 1982 that launched what became his career. Wishing to honor her memory, he carved a totem pole and organized Metlakatla’s first potlatch in decades. Little knowledge of either practice remained, and Boxley had to figure them out on his own. He did so, igniting a cultural revival in the process.

To understand Boxley’s story, one needs to understand the origins of Metlakatla, which differ tremendously from other Alaska Native villages — a history Boxley nicely summarizes in an early chapter. The Tsimshian people have long lived along the coast of what is now the northern British Columbia coast. In 1887, intertribal conflicts resulted in a splinter group breaking off and, under the guidance of British missionary William Duncan, relocating to Annette Island in what was then the District of Alaska.

In keeping with policies supported by the church and government, residents of the town abandoned many traditional practices viewed as antithetical to Christian and Western values. This includes the creation of totem poles, which white observers considered pagan idols, although Boxley stresses that they were used for telling stories, and were never worshiped.

Boxley briefly discusses the complicated history of missionaries and Alaska Natives, noting that Duncan wasn’t without his shortcomings. But he was committed to the Tsimshian and lived in the village for the remainder of his life. Metlakatla, a community with its own distinct history and culture, wouldn’t exist without him.

After Boxley carved his first pole and held that first potlatch, his direction in life was set. He soon left teaching, and in 1986 moved to Seattle to pursue his art in a place where professional opportunities were more abundant than in Southeast Alaska. But his heart remained in Metlakatla, and his work was exclusively focused on recovering and revitalizing traditions that had been forgotten. Those traditions now permeate the Southeast, but they were almost absent when he commenced on his artistic journey. In the 1960s, Haida and Tlingit carvers had again begun constructing totem poles, but at the time Boxley carved his first, Alaska’s Tsimshian residents had yet to follow suit.

Boxley recalls that first potlatch for his grandmother, and several other early ones that followed, including one for his grandfather. Over time he became a master of totem carver, and despite living in Washington state, has remained actively involved in Metlakatla, incorporating his art into community and cultural events including potlatches and other traditional practices that Boxley was pivotal in rescuing from near extinction.

At several points, Boxley pauses to remind readers that there weren’t mentors in Metlakatla when he first brought a cedar pole into his shop, picked up an adze he had made with his grandfather, and began carving. “I had to reach back generations to create what is normal now,” he writes. Today, traditional arts are thriving in the village, and he says the “number of active artists has grown tenfold during my lifetime.”

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The results of his lifetime of work are heavily featured in the second half of this book, in which the text takes a backseat to fine art photography. Pictures of Boxley at work in his shop are interspersed with closeup portraits of his totem poles, paddles, drawings for screen prints, paintings on drums that one of his sons builds, bentwood boxes and more. Dozens of these images are followed by portraits taken at celebrations, and at events where Git Hoan, the dance group Boxley leads, have performed. The beauty and colors spilling from these latter pages put Boxley’s work into context.

“What I really enjoy is carving pieces to be used in performances,” he writes. “That’s because the pieces are being used in a traditional way, not just hanging on walls.”

Boxley’s two sons have followed him into traditional arts, he’s taught countless students, and he’s spurred a revival far beyond what he could have envisioned in 1982, when simply carving a pole and holding a potlatch were his immediate goals. He’s been central to the restoration of Tsimshian heritage, and “Tsimshian Eagle” tells that story.

“I want to make sure that what we have doesn’t go away — again,” he writes late in the book. “I’m trying to instill pride in our culture, our knowledge, our language. I struggle with it sometimes, but I accept the challenge with a purpose.”

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David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at