PUBLISHED: 4:23 PM on Tuesday, August 8, 2006
Nathan's sunshine
Memorial brings first totem pole to Yakutat in more than 100 years

Courtesy photos
  The totem pole carved in memory of Nathan Bremner stands along a trail just outside of Yakutat. Community members carried the pole from the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall and carried it through the village along the trail where it was placed.
What started as a memorial for a boy who touched many lives became a cultural event for the community of Yakutat.

Last month a totem pole was raised in Yakutat for the first time in more than 100 years. The pole was created as a memorial for Nathan Harry Bremner, who died July 4, 2005, at age 16 after a three-month long battle with leukemia.

His mother Shelley Bremner said that while her son was in the hospital, the community of Yakutat lent their support to the family by holding bake sales and raffles and sending cards and making visits.

"The love shown to our family by the community of Yakutat was unbelievable," Bremner said.

She said the idea for a totem pole to be carved in Nathan's memory was to show thanks for his father's family.

"I am so grateful for the Tlingit culture and the laws that govern us. Had I not been forced to prepare for the 40-day feast, I think I could have just stayed in bed for weeks," Bremner said at a potlatch held July 22 where the totem pole was raised. "And so it was that one day I stood in my kitchen planning the 40-day party that I thought about my husband's family, the Luk'nax.adi, the Raven silver-salmon people. And as I thought of all of them, a thought occurred to me. Suddenly I was inspired to have a totem carved as a gift to them. I had no idea what would be on this totem, I just knew that this idea had been born out of my love for them."

Bremner said she believes the inspiration for the totem pole came from the spirit of her son as a way to relieve her grieving.

Nathan, who had Down Syndrome, was known to his family as "Sunshine Boy," Bremner said.

"Even though there were lots of things that were difficult for him to do, the one thing that came easily for him was being kind and loving others," she said. "His gentle, compassionate nature shined through so strong that he truly was our sunshine."

Bremner said Nathan enjoyed joking and teasing with his family and friends and laughing.

Courtesy photo
  From left: James, Amanda, Nathan and Shelley Bremner.
"He loved to laugh and tease, and he was always ready and waiting to give the biggest hug when you really needed it," she said. "He had an uncanny ability of knowing how other people were feeling and was known to instigate hugs from a very early age."

Nathan also enjoy playing drums and Indian dancing, his mother said.

"Before he could even walk, he was on stage at Celebration, and he would continue Indian dancing the rest of his life," Bremner said.

Nathan's older sister, Amanda Bremner, said her brother enjoyed being the Eagle mascot for the Yakutat High School basketball team and decided to play during the 2004-2005 season.

"The team was great, and they would set up shots for him. He was a really good shot, but he would get nervous in front of all of those people," she said.

She said the team dedicated the 2005-2006 season to Nathan by sharing 30 seconds of silence in tribute to him before every game. This year the Yakutat Eagles won the state championship for the first time.

"My parents flew upstate and watched the game," Bremner said. "I watched from home, but it was so great to witness."

She said Nathan had an ability to bring people together.

"When we came home from Seattle there were people everywhere - cleaning the house, watering the plants - doing all of these things to help my mother," she said. "These were people who every day wouldn't get along together. It made me really proud that he could still bring people together.

David Boxley, who is Tsimshian and the lead carver on the totem that created in Nathan's memory, said he met Nathan before he died, which helped him in creating the pole.

The totem pole was carved at the high school in Yakutat and was created in about five weeks, Boxley said.

"It was a really amazing experience because as much as I knew it was a memorial pole for this family, I knew that Yakutat hadn't had a totem pole in a long time so I had a responsibility to the community," Boxley said.

He said that while he is used to carving totem poles, the Yakutat project had special meaning.

"At the potlatch I looked at everyone around me and realized that this was the first time they've done this. There was a sense of history being made. It's a very personal pole and it seems like such a positive thing for the community," Boxley said. "I'm very thankful for what I'm able to do and give back to these communities."