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PUBLISHED: 9:31 AM on Wednesday, October 25, 2006
More than meets the eye
SEARHC raises Kootéeyaa Project Wellbriety totem pole

Photo courtesy of SEARHC
  Hundreds of community members helped the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium raise the Kootéeyaa Project Wellbriety totem pole during a ceremony Saturday, Oct. 14, in front of the SEARHC Community Health Services building in Sitka.
SITKA - Hundreds of community members helped the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium raise the Kootéeyaa Project Wellbriety totem pole during a ceremony Saturday, Oct. 14, in front of the SEARHC Community Health Services building in Sitka.

The totem pole has the Tlingit name Yei éek kwa néix, which means, "you are going to get well."

The all-day ceremony required community participation. First, a group of about 140 people used 4x4s to carry the 4,000-pound pole from the carving shelter where Tlingit master carver Wayne Price had been working on the pole since April. Once the pole reached its place of honor on the lawn in front of the SEARHC Community Health Services building, about 400 community members pulled six ropes to lift the pole into place.

The ceremony concluded at the Hames Physical Education Center at Sheldon Jackson College with speeches, Native dancing and a dinner featuring traditional foods.

"It's been one of the most extraordinary events of SEARHC, right up there with the raising of the SEARHC flag when we took over the IHS (Indian Health Service) service unit," said SEARHC president and CEO Ken Brewer, referring to the day in 1975 when SEARHC was granted control of its own health care. "It's a true symbol of our culture being healthy, it really is."

"It really has been an extraordinary day, with all this energy and all these smiling faces reflecting the healthy theme of this pole," added Jan Hill, Chair of the SEARHC board of directors.

The Kootéeyaa Project totem represents the Native journey to wellness, the SEARHC substance abuse and prevention treatment programs, and the process of transformation to and the continuing journey of "Wellbriety." Wellbriety is part of a national movement that uses a Native journey to wellness - one that links physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health - as part of its process of healing the total person.

Representatives from White Bison, the group that fostered the national Wellbriety movement, were on hand with their sacred hoop, the first time the sacred hoop has been in Alaska.

The pole features a frond of devil's club carved into the base. Devil's club, or S'áxt' in Tlingit, is considered one of the most powerful medicinal plants for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes that populate Southeast Alaska.

The devil's club plant has been incorporated into the SEARHC logo and the Tlingit name for the SEARHC Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka is S'áxt' Hít.

Atop the base, a medicine woman kneels as she holds a birch basket full of medicinal plants, including rose hips, soapberries, Hudson Bay tea and currants.

Next comes a shaman with his partner spirit wolf, and the shaman holds a pair of Tlingit rattles. Above the shaman is an open space, which represents the daylight of recovery. A raven - the creator, in Tlingit lore - is on the top of the pole and the raven holds a copper ring in its beak, which represents the moon.

"The design of this pole reflects very old, traditional Tlingit values. The shaman, the medicine woman, each of these is symbolic of Tlingit culture," Price said.

"Culture and art have the ability to heal people, to recover. It's a very healthy path people can take to getting well."

During the pole's carving process, groups of about 10 community members apiece formed circles of healing.

Each healing circle met to discuss a different aspect of Wellbriety, such as alcohol and substance abuse, diabetes or cancer.

Then each person in the healing circle got to make his or her mark on the pole.

"Words cannot describe how I felt the day of the pole raising," said Kootéeyaa Project chairwoman Roberta Kitka, a drug and alcohol treatment specialist for SEARHC.

"It was a very emotional day for me to see all the good people who showed up to help. The eagles were singing as the pole went up. Elders were in awe at the design and detail of the pole. An elder commented, 'I thought I was just coming to a pole raising, but this was so much more than that.' Gunalcheesh to all the helpers!"

The Kootéeyaa Project's mission statement is "to promote and demonstrate the natural partnership between health and Alaskan cultures through the embodiment of wellness, community collaboration and traditional values."

The Kootéeyaa Project received funding from the J.M. Murdock Charitable Trust.

For more information about the Kootéeyaa Project, contact project chairwoman Roberta Kitka at (907) 966-8603 or by e-mail at roberta.kitka@searhc.org. Kootéeyaa Project coordinator James Diffin can be reached at (907) 966-8879 or by e-mail at james.diffin@searhc.org.


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