Towering totems tell a story

Master carvers carry on an ancient artistic tradition in Alaska

Inside the Alaska Indian Arts center in Haines, Alaska, the smell of cedar hangs heavy in the air. Clunks, whacks, and scraping noises punctuate the redolence. Cedar chips litter the floor.

Here, in the rain-forest environment of the Tongass National Forest, where more than 140 inches of precipitation fall each year, choice red cedar trees grow. They make the best totem poles.

"The wood from yellow cedar tends to crack when it's drying," says Lee Heinmiller, the center's director. "Red cedar gives while it's drying."

The nonprofit center, devoted to the preservation of traditional crafts and culture of the northwest-coast native tribes, houses a handful of artists who make authentic totem poles and other Alaskan crafts, such as masks, jewelry, and canoes. The center features an apprentice program and workshops on the art of the northwest coast.

While a couple of visitors watch, Mr. Heinmiller works on a totem pole commissioned by actor James Earl Jones.

"Poles can have any design," Heinmiller says, "as long as they tell a story."

Totems often represent a family line or a folkloric event. But they can also illustrate a personal or historic event. Mr. Jones's totem tells the story of his lineage, represented by animals and symbols. A mountain lion, eagle, and wolf represent Jones's father, wife, and son. Three spirit guides, as described to Jones's mother during a trip to Africa, appear along with four word designs from Jones's Cherokee heritage. Oriental writing represents his son's trip to the Far East.

Since totems generally cost $2,500 per foot, this 22-foot pole is going to be an expensive artwork.

Totem carving began with the Tlingit and Haida Indians. The rich natural resources of southeast Alaska, where the Tlingit and Haida live, gave them recreational time to carve poles. Tlingit myth says their people started carving totems when they found a carved log washed up on the beach. The Haida say a master carver, who created a house front and several poles overnight, taught the craft.

The basic design elements in totems are a series of ovoids and U- and S-lines to connect the ovoids. Ravens, eagles, bears, whales, and wolves are some of the common figures used on a classic totem. The raven, a trickster capable of changing his form at will, symbolizes the creator. The eagle signifies peace and friendship. Killer whales mean strength. The common figure of speech notwithstanding, the low man (or creature) on a totem pole is the most important feature.

Color choices were, and remain, simple. Black is the primary color, followed by red and blue-green. Clam shells, lichen, copper pebbles, hematite, and salmon eggs have been used to create paints.

Totems require precise tapping with an elbow adze to form features and symbols. Carvers use a caliper to take constant measurements. The surface of the wood gets a satin-smooth finish with a razor-sharp knife rather than sandpaper.

"If you work properly and know the wood," Heinmiller says, "it works with you. You have to double-check measurements all the time."

At Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan, Alaska, visitors can see an array of original and reproduced totems. Replica poles were fashioned from fragments of old poles found in village ruins; salvageable poles were repaired. The project produced a replica clan house and 14 poles that tell Tlingit and Haida creation stories and myths.

Master carver Nathan Jackson, who trained at the Institute of American Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., made many of the replicated totems. His totems appear in many museums and private collections around the world. He often carves at the Saxman Native Village in Ketchikan, with other master carvers.

His Tlingit name is Raven Child. Tlingit myth says the raven stole the sun, moon, and stars to create the Earth. Jackson carved this common Tlingit creation story on the first totem mounted on board a cruise ship two years ago.

"The raven's a trickster," he says. "He walks funny and has a funny sound. He's always doing funny things. He's the acrobat of the bird world."

Jackson keeps to the traditional Tlingit "mountain style" with his totems. His son, Stephen, another master carver, creates totems with a more modern look. His raven transformation totem, which stands in the Mount Roberts Tramway visitor center in Juneau, Alaska, has an unpainted surface. For two months, Stephen carved the totem on the floor of the building's lobby, where Alaskan artisans often work for public viewing.

The transformation totem pole tells no folkloric or personal story. Rather, it depicts the changes experienced in tribal history from original clansmen to the Tlingits of today.

It doesn't matter that the totem pole is unfinished (signifying the future generations). The important thing is, it tells a story.

Where to see authentic totems

Alaska Indian Arts Center Haines, Alaska (907) 766-2160

Totem Bight State Historical Park Ketchikan, Alaska (907) 465-4563 units/totembgh.htm

Mount Roberts Tramway Juneau, Alaska (888) 461-TRAM

Saxman Native Village PO Box 6656 Ketchikan, AK 99901 (907) 225-4846

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