Alaska totem masters complete clan house in Anchorage

By Mike Dunham
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) August 2010

Visitors to the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage this summer have been able to see four of the best contemporary totem master carvers working in one place at the same time. Starting today, their work will be put in place as part of a weeklong celebration of Southeast Alaska Native Culture.

The carvers have been creating house posts for the clan house at the center’s Southeast village site. The large log-and-plank structure, a replica of the clan houses Southeast Indians used before contact with Europeans, was deemed incomplete when the center opened in 1999. One issue: It lacked decorative interior corner posts, which resemble short totem poles. “It all came down to funding,” said Scott Neel, the center’s curator of collections and exhibits. There simply wasn’t enough money to cover construction of the building, the house posts, a carved screen, two front corner posts, a carved entry post and painting.

Then, last year, a $75,000 grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation put the posts within grasp.

“The themes of each house post were chosen by our Cultural Advisory Committee,” said Neel. “They wanted ‘Respect’ to be the overall theme and then broke it down to the four sub-themes,” culture, self, environment and family.

Traditionally, a clan house would belong to a single tribal group. But since the center’s village site is intended to represent all Southeast Native groups, it was decided that each pole would represent one of four tribes from the region: Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.

Neel sent out requests for proposals “to just about every village in the Southeast.” Among the respondents were the stellar quartet that received the commissions: Israel Shotridge, Tlingit, of Ketchikan. Shotridge’s totems can be found in Totem Bight State Historical Park, totem parks in Klawock and Saxman, all over downtown Ketchikan and at the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. David Boxley, Tsimshian, of Metlakatla. Raised by his grandparents, who taught him Tsimshian traditions and language, Boxley has carved 65 poles in the past 26 years, teaching and demonstrating at the Smithsonian Institution and American Museum of Natural History. Joe and T.J. Young, Haida, of Hydaburg. These brothers are considered to be among the rising stars in the world of totem carvers. This year they created a much-admired eagle pole for the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Previously they made a 40-foot pole for the Sitka National Historical Park and a 32-foot crest pole for the totem park in their home town.

The search committee was unable to find an Eyak carver; the Eyak tribe was the smallest of the four and located somewhat west of the region where totems were traditionally raised. So they asked the selected carvers if any of them wanted to take it on. Shotridge presented a design that the committee found acceptable and got the job.

Now the posts are completed. One will be set in position and dedicated each day through the coming week with ceremonies that include songs and dancing. The event will culminate Friday with a naming celebration for the house. Because the clan house is far from the historic territory of Southeast people, the committee has determined that “The House Far Away from Home” will be the name.