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Sprouting totems, blossoming Haida culture in Southeast Alaska

  • Author: Paula Dobbyn
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 16, 2015

HYDABURG -- Chain saws toppled a 550-year-old western red cedar tree on Prince of Wales Island recently. But last month, the ancient log rose again as Eagle and Raven totem poles in the village of Hydaburg.

Hydaburg, a rainforest town of 400 on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska, is on a mission. It's leading a resurgence in Haida culture, churning out new totem poles, running a carving school and designing a traditional long house. What's happening here is part of a wave of cultural revitalization projects sweeping Alaska's Panhandle.

"We're raising the next generation of cultural warriors," said Tony Christianson, Hydaburg's mayor and environmental director.

With at least 22 totem poles erected in the past several years, including two last month, this seat of Haida culture in the United States is reviving ancient traditions while creating employment and new directions for tribal members.

As Christianson spoke in late July, residents and guests poured into Hydaburg's totem park, gathering to celebrate the completion of the Eagle and Raven poles, representing the tribe's moieties, or major clans.

"These poles bring balance and unity to our community," Christianson said.

Eagle is a replica of an older pole while the Raven is a new design.

As Haida drummers and singers performed nearby, residents and visitors used ropes and muscle to push the 12-foot poles upright. Cheers erupted as the poles -- each weighing several thousand pounds -- were anchored to their bases.

"Our spirits are lifted each time a pole goes up," said carver Terrance Peele, known locally as Hagoo.

Peele danced in celebration before the new poles, a cape of eagle feathers draped across his shoulders.

Restoring a dilapidated park

Carved from a tree that was a sapling in 1465, Hydaburg's latest poles officially complete a five-year project to restore the village's totem park, a collection of poles on a bluff overlooking salmon-rich Sukkwan Strait. Created in the 1930s, the park fell into disrepair in recent decades.

Now restored, the totem park graces the center of town, surrounded by dense stands of cedar, hemlock and spruce, providing testament to Hydaburg's newfound cultural vitality.

"These poles help us perpetuate our culture," said Lisa Lang, chair of Haida Corp., Hydaburg's village corporation. She also directs Xaadas Kil Kuyaas Foundation, which promotes Haida language preservation.

"Our kids are growing up with monumental pieces of Haida art being created in our community. They're learning how to carve at a young age," said Lang, whose Haida name is Ka'illjuus.

‘It feels good’

Hydaburg's totem pole restoration emerged from a road-paving project.

The village, formed in 1911 when several outlying communities merged, never had paved roads. But in preparation for Hydaburg's centennial in 2011, the community raised funds to blacktop roads and add street signs in English and Haida.

The paving project, which involved heavy machinery and trench digging, threatened to destabilize aging poles along the totem park's perimeter. That's when Christianson and others decided it was time to rehabilitate the weather-beaten park.

"We needed to do something. We were going to lose those poles and, with them, a big part of our identity and history," Christianson said.

To avert a crisis, Hydaburg secured grant funding, in part from the Anchorage-based Rasmuson Foundation, and built a carving facility. Tribal members dusted off long-neglected carving skills, consulted with other artists, and started restoring or replicating totem poles, even designing new ones. The carving shed has become a focal point for residents, a place where elders share knowledge and skills with younger tribal members.

"It's been amazing to see the town come together like this," said Gerald Peele, lead carver and designer of the new Raven pole. "It feels good."

Southeast cultural revitalization

Many Southeast tribes have sought grants recently for projects including constructing cultural centers, carving totem poles and renovating tribal houses.

"Ten years ago, we didn't get many proposals from tribes. Now virtually every community in Southeast has something going on as far as cultural resurgence. There's a lot of economic opportunity associated with these projects," said Diane Kaplan, president and chief executive of the Rasmuson Foundation.

Rasmuson commissioned a totem pole in Yakutat that went up this summer, the first one carved in recent memory.

In July, the foundation directed $750,000 to the village of Klukwan near Haines for the interior construction of a cultural heritage center, and it awarded $220,750 to Saxman to expand its carving center. In 2011, the foundation granted $450,000 to restore Chief Shakes Island tribal house in Wrangell, which has become a key tourist attraction.

"There's really been what I would call a flood of activity in terms of Alaska Native cultural preservation, especially in Southeast," said Kaplan. "It's a very different picture than when I first moved to Alaska in 1983."

Dr. Rosita Worl, a Juneau-based scholar, said Southeast is a hotspot for cultural revitalization, and Hydaburg is a prime example.

"I've seen a real transformation. I first went to Hydaburg in the early 1980s. It was for a Head Start event. The kids were still playing cowboys and Indians, and of course, the kids all wanted to be the cowboys because the cowboys always won," said Worl, an anthropologist and president of Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Hydaburg is a different place now, she said.

"I've been able to witness the recovery of their culture," said Worl, whose Tlingit names are Yeidiklats'okw and Kaa.haní.

Promoting sustainable economies

Worl ties the reawakening of culture to the Native American self-determination movement and passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971.

"Beginning with ANCSA, when our title to the land was recognized, that provided a big psychological boost for Alaska Natives. It began a period of real self-determination. Native people started to have their own institutions and began to administer their own programs, not just rely on the Bureau of Indian Affairs," said Worl.

A nonprofit formed in 1980, Sealaska Heritage Institute, promotes Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultural and language programs, and acts as a catalyst for major projects, including the new Walter Soboleff Center in Juneau.

The institute created Celebration, a biennial dance and cultural festival in Juneau that began in 1983. The festival has grown into a huge event attracting thousands of tribal members and non-Natives from across Alaska and beyond. Celebration and smaller-scale events have spurred what some consider a renaissance in Alaska Native culture.

This movement has helped communities like Hydaburg deal with the legacy of social trauma after decades of cultural repression at the hands of missionaries, teachers, government officials and other outside forces, Worl said.

"Cultural revitalization is important because of the social and psychological benefits but it's also important for promoting sustainable economies," Worl said.

Some Native carvers earn tens of thousands of dollars each year selling their art, and communities with cultural centers and totem parks draw revenue from Southeast's booming tourism industry, she noted.

In Hoonah, a predominantly Tlingit town, there's been a revival of cedar and spruce basket weaving through a program started in 2004 by Sealaska Heritage Institute.

"Basketry was almost extinct in Hoonah. Now we have about 20 people making baskets and earning income from it," Worl said.

Hoonah has capitalized on its Tlingit culture by sharing it with thousands of visiting cruise ship passengers. Huna Totem Corp., the village's Native corporation, developed a private cruise ship port and tourist destination 11 years ago called Icy Strait Point. It features Native-themed attractions including tribal dancing and storytelling.

A Haida blessing

Although Hydaburg's totem restoration project is complete, there's talk about squeezing more poles into the park, and putting new ones along the seashore.

"My goal is for Hydaburg to have the world's largest display of totemic art -- the biggest totem park anywhere," said Lang.

Lang would like Hydaburg's nascent tourism industry blossom to really take off, with Haida culture at the center. If what's happened over the last few years is any indication, the community is headed that way.

Hydaburg's totem pole raisings take place during the last week of July, timed to coincide with the tribe's annual culture camp.

Open to anyone who wants to learn about Haida traditions, the culture camp involves four days of classes in subjects like weaving, carving, beading, regalia making, Haida language arts and dance. Each year it has grown in size, with hundreds of participants and thousands of free meals served by the tribe, many of them featuring wild salmon and other locally caught seafood.

On the day of totem pole raisings this year, clam chowder and venison constituted the lunch menu.

The camp always culminates with a potlatch, a community feast with traditional Native foods and dance. At this year's potlatch, dance groups from Metlakatla, Klawock and Hydaburg performed as people dined on fresh halibut, sockeye and crab, along with deer stew and other traditional foods.

Earlier in the day, under drizzly skies, events kicked off inside the village's cedar-scented carving shed. Residents and guests participated in a prayer ceremony offered by Benjamin Young, a Haida language instructor.

As the Eagle and Raven poles lay on their backs, waiting to be carried through Hydaburg's streets to the park, Young waved a cedar branch over the length of each pole and offered a Haida blessing.

Young later said he asked the creator to bless the poles and to ensure the safety of everyone carrying the heavy objects to the park.

"These poles are a visual reminder of our identity as members of the Haida Nation. We want to make sure they go up safely," he said.

Hydaburg's next big project is to build a traditional long house later this year to replace the village's aging Alaska Native Brotherhood hall, which serves as a gathering place for meetings, ceremonies and public events. Built in the early 1900s, the hall is considered beyond repair.

"I can't wait to get started," said T.J. Young, a master carver and Benjamin's brother.

Young and his brother Joe are Anchorage residents whose roots are in Hydaburg. Both are highly acclaimed Haida carvers and jewelry makers who have installed several totem poles around the state. T.J. is currently apprenticing with Robert Davidson, a world-renowned Northwest Coast artist of Haida and Tlingit ancestry.

The long house will serve as the next step in Hydaburg's transformation, Christianson said. Although funds for the $1.4 million structure are still being raised, the Young brothers and Hydaburg's growing community of carvers and apprentices are planning to begin designing and building the long house this fall.

"I'm looking forward to passing along my knowledge to young carvers here in Hydaburg. That's what the boss told me to do -- pass it on," said Young.

Paula Dobbyn is an Anchorage freelance writer.

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