Alaska News

Standing tall: Guardians of the Alaska totem

JUNEAU – T.J. Young always has an eye out for the perfect tree, particularly, but not exclusively, red cedar. The straighter the better. Once he sees it, his mind begins racing with series of questions.

How tall is it?

How wide is it?

If he were to take it, on what side would he want it dropped?

His older brother Joe Young has a few questions of his own. Just how big of a totem pole can he and T.J. produce from this tree? What other indigenous artwork -- a mask, a fish hook, a panel -- can the rest of the tree provide these Haida artists?

It's a constant cognitive exercise that accelerates once a totem pole project begins, and it continues with each measurement, each adze stroke and each chisel cut as a pole's features slowly emerge along a 25-foot log.

It's a journey that calls for navigating hidden timber imperfections: knots, dead spots where the wood has rotted and cracks that could continue splitting the length of the log if they are not careful.


"We've got to be patient and flexible," says 35-year-old Joe. "We've got to be disciplined and not distracted by other things; that means paying attention to things like wood grain changes and other variables you can't control."

It's a discipline that's driving a resurgence in totem pole art throughout Southeast Alaska and allowing the Youngs to join a class of emerging artists restoring a cultural centerpiece either absent for decades or in decay.

This includes a recently completed yearlong two-pole project now prominently displayed in a neighborhood immediately outside downtown Juneau known as Indian Village.

Made of red cedar, they are eagle and raven poles, carved to honor the Tlingit Auk Kwáan clans and long-term residents of Indian Village. They replaced poles standing since 1977.

The poles join a series of other works the Youngs have completed in the last seven years.

'Art is definitely coming back'

The Youngs' Yaadaas Crest Pole stands prominently at the entrance to Sitka National Historical Park, their Eagle pole went up at the University of Alaska Southeast four years ago and a crest pole stands in Hydaburg's rejuvenated Totem Park.

Several new poles carved by others now stand in their hometown of Hydaburg, the neighboring community Klawock on Prince of Wales Island and Metlakatla.

More are planned for these and other Prince of Wales communities, Wrangell and Juneau.

One pole, designed and carved by Tsimshian artist David A. Boxley, traveled to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in 2012. There, he and his son, David R. Boxley, put the finishing touches on the pole before it was raised.

"The art is definitely coming back; I'm not sure it's coming back to the level it was in the mid-19th century. Not yet, anyway," says 33-year-old T.J. Young. "It's good in a way, but it could be better. I just want to be a part of that crowd who brings it back to that level of where it was in the 1850s.

"Totem poles told a story about who lives in a house and what clan they belonged to. They were there to document family. A lot of people don't realize that. They think it was for worship or just art. It's more than that. Much more."

A carving shed can be an artist's only laboratory for learning or teaching.

In their mid-30s, the Youngs do both, working with apprentices while looking to master artists like Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson or Haida artist Robert Davidson for direction.

It's a necessary give and take, says Rosita Worl, the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, who hired the Youngs for their latest project.

"They are making sure that good Northwest Coast art is perpetuated," Worl says. "We have an aging artist population; the majority of our artists are 46 years old or older.

"For them to be as young as they are, as good as they are, as disciplined as they are, it diminishes my worry, knowing those guys are out there."

'A healing process'

Nearly 20 new poles have already gone up in the Youngs' childhood home of Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island, one of the state's southernmost islands, just north of the Canadian border.


The Youngs have put their touch on several poles while inspiring others to continue, says Hydaburg Mayor Tony Christianson.

Christianson says the town has replicated 17 poles and house posts over the last five years. Four more poles need replacing.

He says the community's ongoing project quickly became a priority and has helped restore cultural pride in the town while turning a dilapidated park into a gathering place.

"Not only was it an eyesore, it was a hazard to the community," he said. "It's symbolic of how we were taking care of ourselves and the community. If we were going to allow our history to fall by the wayside, something is not right.

"Unilaterally we got the community back, got control of our finances and started to replicate the poles. It's been a healing process, pulling poles from dilapidation and helping our culture revive itself.

"Our communities are struggling in this region. We look at our culture and the poles; we see a future economy (based) on our identity. We can be ourselves. Most important, we can be Haida."

The totem pole's origin is on Haida Gwaii, formerly known as Queen Charlotte Islands, just south of Hydaburg across the U.S.-Canadian border, art historian Aldona Jonaitis wrote in a recent collaboration, "The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History."

Jonaitis is the director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. She calls totem poles "the most striking form of Northwest Coast art," adding that the prospective value of the Youngs' work cannot be overstated. She expects that it will increase long after the poles are raised.


"They are a living art form that is of central importance to Native culture on the Northwest coast," she said. "What's going on now, and this is why (the Youngs' recent project) is so exciting, is that Native communities themselves are having poles carved for their own use and their own significance.

"It's such an important statement of sovereignty. The poles carved today are statements of the strength of the Southeast Alaska Native culture and the endurance of many decades of being treated poorly."

'Stealing an art form'

Artists such as the Youngs and Boxleys face an infiltration of miniature totem poles and replicas that are more kitsch than art, Jonaitis said, targeting tourists with phony products.

"If a pole is not made by a Native person or, worse, if a pole is made overseas, which is unfortunately often the case, it doesn't deserve to be sold," she says. "It doesn't deserve to even be marketed.

"It's not saying anything to anyone. A pole made by somebody who is not a trained artist, who is not Native -- those people are just stealing an art form that is inherently Native and making money off Natives."

Hydaburg is where the Youngs' first collaboration still stands. It's an 8-foot pole right in the front yard of their late grandfather, Claude Morrison, a revered elder who lived to 100 before dying in 2011.

Completed in 1997, it's a pole very few will see and won't likely pique anthropologists' interests, but it launched a lifetime of learning and commitment to advancing the their culture.

"We quit fishing early that year," says Joe, who is the second of five children and the oldest brother of four who grew up in Hydaburg. "We wanted to get it done for my grandfather's birthday. I still like looking at it when I go home."

The two now live in Anchorage and have worked alongside some of the most established Northwest Coast carvers.

They joined Tlingit artist Israel Shotridge and the elder Boxley on a project at the Alaska Native Heritage Center several years ago. Each carved house posts reflecting their tribe.

For nearly two years, T.J. has worked alongside Haida carver Robert Davidson in Surrey, British Columbia. As a result, his work is sold in Vancouver's Spirit Wrestler Gallery.

When together, the brothers work methodically on their own sections of a 25-foot pole, breaking to consult with each other, their design sketches and Native art books that reflect mid-19th century poles, what T.J. calls "the golden age of totem poles."


"Those old pictures are all we have. They are basically instructions without the words," he says. "We are using photos, stories and techniques that we learned to try to create something.

"It's our responsibility to stay accountable to that work, that level of precision. We are trying to retrieve that genetic memory. It's (been) ingrained for thousand(s) of years. Our job is to find it."

The books remain open while they resume the cycle of measuring and striking the pole with an adze – a stainless steel blade, bent at the ends and positioned at a right angle to the tool's wood handle. An efficient stroke can bring a wood shaving 6 to 8 inches long that quickly accumulates beneath the work area.

"When it's wet, the wood feels pretty smooth," T.J. says. "(The adze) kind of glides right through it. When it's dry, it's a bit of a rougher swing. The stroke is not going to last as long. It's a slower stroke.

"It seems repetitive, but you don't get tired of it. Each angle you're finding is different; each angle you're chasing is different. It's not like it's the same thing. It's the same motions, but you're finding something different with each series of strokes. That's the beauty of the wood."

Steve Quinn is a Juneau-based freelance writer who has covered Alaska Native culture, lifestyles and business for six years.

Steve Quinn

Steve Quinn is a Juneau freelance writer.