PUBLISHED: 4:37 PM on Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Telling the tale
Totem poles portray politics, science, family issues

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  The totem "How Our Uncle Would Raise His Nephews" is inside Juneau's Vocational Training and Resource Center.
Sitka hosts one of the nation's best outdoor galleries. Its National Historical Park invites a meander through spruce, hemlock and cedar to 11 totem poles. In this natural setting, they seem to be alive, some gazing across the harbor as if expecting dolphins or whales.

Ketchikan has the rich Totem Bight State Historical Park.

Juneau offers a fascinating walking tour of totem poles spanning more than a century of history.

There are few known facts about the first totem poles, but documentary evidence and stories make it clear that the first carvers came from tribes who lived along the Inside Passage.

Juneau's nearly two dozen publicly displayed totem poles mark parks and playgrounds, stores, courthouses and schools. Many are scattered downtown within walking distance of one another. The oldest date to the 1800s.The Alaska State Museum displays a carving of Abraham Lincoln, who once stood on top of the "Proud Raven Totem" pole on Tongass Island. Accounts of the story the pole depicts differ. One holds it commemorates the Raven clan's first encounter with a white man. Another says it honors President Lincoln for writing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Mick Beasley's totem pole outside of Fred Meyer features a bear.
The so-called "Old Witch Pole," also dates to the 1800s, and its home is the eighth-floor lobby of the State Office Building. Made in the Haida Village of Old Sukkwan, it was brought to Juneau in the early 20th century by a local physician. It stood outside a storefront and later a library until it was moved indoors in 1977. It illustrates a timeless struggle.

"This story concerns a high-born young man who was having mother-in-law trouble," writes Edward L. Keithahn in "Monuments in Cedar," a book about totem poles first published in 1945 and available online at

The totem at the Governor's House dates to 1939-40 and tells the legend of the creation of light.

Fast forward to 1967: Amos Wallace carved "Harnessing of the Atom." Now on the grounds of the Juneau Douglas City Museum, it depicts the Russian missionaries coming to Alaska, the Russian transfer of Alaska to the United States and tells the Tlingit version of the origin of the universe and harnessing of the atom.

Twin brothers Mick and Rick Beasley are well known contemporary carvers in Juneau. The Tlingit artists created the totem poles at Fred Meyer. Mick's carving marks the left side of the main entrance, and its main feature is a bear. Rick's work shows a raven climbing down kelp after a sea urchin and is based on a legend from Yakutat, the home of the brothers' grandmother.

Rick says he began carving in the eighth grade, influenced by a teacher, Jim Marks, a carver who descends from a family of artisans.

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  The totem outside the Juneau Douglas City Museum was carved by Hydaburg's JohnWallace in 1940 and tells four different stories. It features, from the top: frog, man, Raven, monster frog, Bear Chief, v-shaped fish trap, black bear, shaman holding a land otter, black oystercatcher rattle, octopus, halibut, halibut hook baited with supernatural mouse and its spirit.
"That was back in the 1970s when there wasn't a lot to do in Juneau, but everyone carved in the school district and they taught us how," he said.

It can take as long as a year to carve a richly detailed totem pole. Almost half of Juneau's totem poles on public display were carved during the 1970s and 1980s.

Rick works in a variety of materials, and also has a reputation for distinctive gold jewelry. He is writing a book on carving designed to perpetuate traditional native art forms through text and images which carefully document the techniques - including making paint from fungus and volcanic rock and brushes from porcupine quills - used to create them.

"I like to try very different methods to preserve our knowledge," he says. The book will be published by Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Just like Picasso's Paris, where the Left Bank drew painters and everyone knew what everyone else was doing, the world of contemporary totem pole carvers is a closely-knit one.

Marks, Rick's teacher, has work on display in downtown Juneau outside the Goldbelt Building. Collaborating with artist Ray Peck, Marks carved "Legends and Beliefs Totem Pole." It is topped by the Eagle and the Raven, which represent the two key Tlingit tribal groups.

"Tlingits are either Eagle or Raven and marry a person from the opposite group. Thus this top figure is meant to include all Tlingits," writes Scott Foster, author of "Totem Talk," a comprehensive pamphlet on Juneau's totem poles. Although out of print, a copy of the pamphlet is available at the City Museum and includes an excellent walking-tour map.

The totem pole at Capital School Park is "A Southeast Family" and is three totem poles showing a mother, a father and a hidden child.

"There is joy in those faces," says Jane Lindsey, director of the City Museum, who observes that like other art, totem poles are interpreted in different ways, depending on the beholder. Even among carvers discussing the same pole, stories vary.

Juneau's most recent totem pole was raised at the Vocational Training and Resource Center in 2001. Tlingit master carver Wayne Price of Haines carved "Kaa Kaatch A Dei" or "How Our Uncle Would Raise His Nephews." It was to give honor to the maternal uncle, who in Tlingit society were responsible for the training, discipline and teaching of his nephews.