Carvers across Southeast Alaska are working on totem poles that will line Juneau’s waterfront

two men in a workshop
Nathan Jackson and his son Stephen Jackson, who uses the artist name Jackson Polys, stand in the carving shed in Saxman earlier this month. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

The Sealaska Heritage Institute sees Juneau as the Northwest Coast art capital of the world. And they hope the Totem Pole Trail will help visitors see it the same way.

The institute has invited master carvers from around Southeast to create 10 totem poles representing Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, which should start going up along Juneau’s waterfront next year. The trail will eventually have 30 poles, with storyboards and plaques for each.

“Our traditional poles historically dominated the shorelines of our ancestral homelands and told the world who we were,” SHI President Rosita Worl said in a news release. “It’s fitting that our totems will be one of the first things people see while sailing into Juneau.”

a map of downtown Juneau totem poles
A graphic from Sealaska Heritage Institute shows where poles might be placed as part of the Totem Pole Trail in Juneau. (Image courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute)

The first 10 poles are being funded by a $2.9 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Those funds support the artists and cover the costs of the logs.

All the carvers will be working with apprentices.

KRBD spoke with seven of the artists working on the trail, from Sitka, Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island and Metlakatla.


Tommy Joseph was just finishing up carving a canoe when Worl reached out, asking if he’d be interested in carving a pole for the trail.

“They wanted me to do a pole representing all of the Eagle clans, all the Eagle moiety,” Joseph said.

Joseph got to work,  sketching out his vision for the pole.

“I had given them, I think, overall, four different renditions, because I had it way too complicated at first and needed to loosen up a bit,” Joseph explained. “After the fourth rendition, they agreed on it, and so made them their model.”

a man with a wooden carving of a fist and feather
Tlingit carver Tommy Joseph sets a fist and feather he carved out of wood on top of a yellow cedar log. Joseph, who was born in Ketchikan, has carved nearly twenty totem poles in Sitka. (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

He’s been working with two apprentices on the project. He said it’s coming along on schedule.

Joseph said he thinks SHI’s vision for the project is ambitious. He doesn’t remember anything like it being done before.

“So that’s a lot of a lot of different styles, interpretations, and, and whomever the person is behind keeping all this organized in track with all 10 carvers and all that is — I wouldn’t want their job, but I think it’s quite amazing what’s happening now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Galanin is at work on a pole representing the Kaagwaantaan clan. He has more than 20 years experience in customary arts and carving.

a carver carving a totem pole with an adze
Yéil Ya-Tseen Nicholas Galanin of Sitka uses an adze to carve the 40 foot T’aaku Kwáan Yanyeidí Healing kootéeyaa totem pole at Harborview Elementary School on 29, 2018. (Photo by Annie Bartholomew/KTOO)

He said the trail is probably the first time in more than 40 years that there’s been so much carving going on in Southeast.

“I think it’s going to be really important to all of these communities,” Galanin said. “I think it would be amazing for these artists that are apprenticing and getting to work on the project.”

Galanin is working with two apprentices — his cousin, Lee Burkhart, and Will Burkhart.

“So hopefully, some of these apprentices on these projects will be able to lead you know, their own totem poles on this down the line,” Galanin said.


Two of the poles will come from the carving sheds of Ketchikan artists, renowned Lingít master carver Nathan Jackson and his son Stephen Jackson, who uses the artist name Jackson Polys. They’re working with four apprentices.

It won’t be the first time the family’s work makes it to Juneau. Polys created one of the bronze house posts standing in front of SHI’s building. Jackson has poles standing outside Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé. His work has been featured in exhibits and magazines in Alaska and nationwide.

a man carving a totem pole
Took, one of Jackson and Polys’s apprentices, works on a pole that will be raised for Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Totem Pole Trail. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

Polys’ pole, which focuses on the Shangukeidi clan, is topped by the figure of a Thunderbird.

“Another story on this pole is the house lowered from the sun crest,” Polys said. “There were wars with Tsimshian people that Shangukeidi were decimated.”

a man carving a totem pole
Norman Natkong works in the carving shed earlier this month. He is one of four apprentices working with Nathan Jackson and Jackson Polys. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

That tells the story of a mother and daughter who are the last of their clan. To save the clan, the mother marries the sun.

There’s also a spirit bear on the pole, who Polys said “led Ḵaax̱’aatee, Shangukeidi shaman and leader down a glacier path during the Little Ice Age, which is like 1550 to 1900.”

The lower figure on the pole takes inspiration from the history of a military leader named Fredrick Schwatka, who led explorations into the Yukon area. Polys said the man did not pay a debt he owed, so the clan took his name and military uniform.

Polys says carving poles that record important stories and are also exemplars of Northwest Coast Native art isn’t a job to be taken lightly.

“There’s a lot of back and forth between the artist, the carvers and the oral historians — (who) are caretakers of the culture — to ensure that it’s a piece of art, ultimately, that is respectful of both those aspirations,” Polys said.

a man standing on a totem pole
Christian Dalton, a carving apprentice working with Nathan Jackson and Jackson Polys, stands on top of the pole in progress. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

Jackson’s pole symbolizes the Wooshkeetaan clan. The first figure on the pole is an eagle, and the second, a mountain. He said he wasn’t quite sure at first why the mountain was to be on the pole until he learned the clan would put a pole in the ground over a cache of frozen meat.

“And so that was the reason why they actually did a totem pole and put it right there, to lay claim to that place where they put the meat — so nobody would bother it and so it was a freezer,” Jackson said.

Below the mountain is a shark. Jackson said he thought maybe it was a salmon shark, but it was actually a great white that was said to have gone after people in canoes.

Both Jackson’s and his son’s pole should be done by the end of the year. He said it’s been easy working alongside his son.

“We can understand each other,” Jackson said. “We’ve done it before.”

Prince of Wales Island and Metlakatla

David R. Boxley from Metlakatla, Jon Rowan from Klawock, and TJ Young from Haida are also working on poles for the trail.

Boxley gets excited when he thinks about traditional carvings being the first look of Juneau that tourists get.

“The word that a lot of Westerners use is ‘primitive’ — and we were not,” he said. “The Northwest Coast was a thriving, ancient civilization, here on the Northwest Coast.”

a father and son with an Alaska Native clan house front carving
David R. Boxley (right) and father David A. Boxley collaborated on the Tsimshian clan house front. (Photo by Brian Wallace/Sealaska Heritage Institute)

The Metlakatla carver is creating a pole representing the Tsimshian people.

He started carving at the age of six, guided by his father, David A. Boxley. Since then, he’s finished more than 25 poles. Together, the Boxleys carved the house front inside the Walter Soboleff building.

Boxley’s pole for Juneau will feature the crests of the Eagle, Raven, Wolf and Killer Whale moieties.

“And so they’re going to go in order of their origin in our history,” Boxley said. “At the top is the killer whale and grizzly bear for the Killer Whale clan, and then a raven and frog for the Raven clan. And a beaver and eagle for the Eagle clan, and the bottom of wolf and crane for the Wolf clan.”

Klawock carver Jon Rowan is one of three carvers working on the trail from Prince of Wales Island.

“It’s a pole for the Ishkahittaan people, they’re out of the Taku River, and it’s a raven, frog and sea lion that’s being represented on that (pole),” Rowan said.

a man looking at a totem pole
Veteran and Klawock elder Aaron Isaacs looks at David Rowan’s Veterans’ Pole at the Klawock carving shed. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Rowan credited his father and many Prince of Wales Island teachers with sparking his love for carving.

“It seems like I’ve always been involved in it,” he said. “My dad used to do it back in the 60s. And that’s where I probably got hooked.”

Rowan teaches carving and Native arts at Klawock’s school.

Haida carver TJ Young was born and raised in Hydaburg. He’s working on two poles for the Juneau project. One will feature a Haida Raven crest, and the other a Lingít Raven crest.

“I’m doing Raven crest on this Lingít pole,” Young explained. “I’m doing Raven crest on the Haida totem pole. And I’m Haida myself. And that was kind of a traditional thing, you do the opposite of your clan. You carve the opposite. Eagle would never carve Eagle, Raven would never carve Raven.”

a man carving a totem pole
Haida carver TJ Young chips at a log that later became the totem pole facing Seward Street at the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Arts Campus in downtown Juneau. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini/KTOO)

Young said he takes a lot of inspiration from his grandfather, whose generation  was discouraged from sharing traditional knowledge like carving. He feels lucky he was able to learn.

“It was literally outlawed, the potlatch, and the culture and the language,” Young said. “They had to adapt, they had to. They had to change without — without changing — if that makes any sense.”

His brother Joe Young also is carving a pole for the trail. TJ said it made his grandfather proud to watch him and his brother carve.

He said he’s looking forward to seeing the differences between all the poles when the project is complete.

“It’s going to be really interesting to notice the differences between styles and colors,” he said. “And even though it’s Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian, I think there’s gonna be a nice little variety of totem poles to look at and to enjoy. So that’s kind of exciting.”

Young said he has a December deadline to finish his carving.

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