Alaskan Indian Renaissance : Totem Pole Carvers Cut Out Niche in Marketplace as Craft Is Revived

Associated Press

Lee Wallace is descended from a long line of totem pole carvers, but his father, like many other Northwest coast Indians, gave up his craft for the sake of becoming “modern.”

Today the younger Wallace is part of a renaissance in the art of carving. Totem poles are coming back.

At 36, Wallace is an apprentice carver at Saxman, a Tlingit village just south of Ketchikan where leaders are building totem poles into a local industry. Saxman has opened a totem park for tourists and hopes eventually to have a pole factory.

“I’m from a long line of carvers. My grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather were all carvers,” Wallace says as his adz, an ax-like tool used for trimming and smoothing wood, shapes a beaver on a pole in the Saxman carving shed.


Family Renown

His grandfather was so renowned he was sent to other parts of the United States to carve poles for exhibitions, Wallace says. But his grandfather died in 1950, and Wallace’s father gave up the craft.

“It was a time when it was not popular to carve, or to speak the language, or to dance. It still wasn’t really popular around here in the ‘70s when I went to school,” he says.

Wallace took up carving a few years ago when he lost his job as a flight attendant. Now he says there is nothing he would rather do than shape centuries-old cedar trees into works of art.


Stories like Wallace’s can be heard throughout southeastern Alaska, where native arts galleries are opening amid souvenir shops and new poles are going up next to totems carved decades ago.

“I would say five years ago you could look at the carvers and list them on one hand. Now there are carvers all over,” says Bill Trudeau, former program director at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan.

About 25 people, Indians and others, are studying traditional carving at the center, a city-run museum established to preserve old totem poles.

Students Offer Carvings

At Saxman, high school students are offering carvings made in Indian arts classes to a store that could hardly find items to sell two years ago.

“In the last five years there’s been national and international recognition of the art form,” says Ward Serrill, president of Cape Fox Tours, the Indian corporation that runs the totem park. “There has been a proliferation of books written. Consequently it’s a lot easier for someone to make a livelihood.”

Totem poles were just one of many types of art produced by Northwest coast tribes. They also carved copper shields, wooden boxes, large fishhooks and the interiors of their wooden plank houses.

When whites explored the region in the 1700s, they found totem poles at Indian villages along more than 1,000 miles of coast, from present-day Washington state through British Columbia to Yakutat, a village at the top of the Alaska Panhandle.


“The restricting factors are the trees available and the tools,” Trudeau says.

Have Varied Purposes

Totem poles serve three purposes, Serrill says. Some mark a place, others are mortuary or memorial poles. The third type tells a story or commemorates an event.

The three most common colors are red, from volcanic rock; black, from graphite or charcoal, and a pale aqua, made from copper ore. The pigments were ground and mixed into paint with a natural adhesive made by chewing salmon eggs and cedar bark.

Poles traditionally were owned by chiefs or other wealthy people who commissioned them. Carvers were traveling artisans who enjoyed high social status.

Serrill dates the decline of pole carving to the late 1800s and the birth of a movement to suppress Indian culture. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, traditional Indian activities were discouraged.

In 1938, the federal government included pole carving in the Civilian Conservation Corps program. Decaying poles were brought to Ketchikan from a number of outlying villages. Master carvers, many in their 70s, were hired to duplicate them and teach the art to younger people.

The group restored 48 old poles and duplicated 54 before World War II broke out in 1941. Then it disbanded to build airstrips and other military facilities, says Mary Kowalczyk, ranger for Totem Bight State Park north of Ketchikan.


Barely Kept Alive

Carving all but stopped in the four decades that followed. The art was kept alive at only a few centers, including the University of Washington in Seattle, the Alaska Indian Arts Center at Haines and in the workshops of several Canadian carvers.

Today, a handful of masters from those programs are teaching the current crop of novices. There are about 30 carvers in southeastern Alaska, eight to 10 of them masters.

One of the teachers is Wayne Price, who is working with Wallace on the eagle-beaver pole at Saxman. Price carves one side of the pole, then Wallace tries to match it stroke-for-stroke on the other side. The 250-year-old cedar they are shaping lies horizontal on a platform in the Saxman carving shed.

Carver Tells Story

Sitting on a partly carved paw and sharing his dried halibut between sentences, the 31-year-old Price took a break to tell his story.

He started hanging around the Indian Arts Center in Haines in 1970, when he was in junior high school. He later apprenticed himself to an older carver and eventually began winning commissions. Since 1982 he has carved 17 poles.

Totem pole carvers are paid $600 to $1,000 per foot. Price says it’s not worth his while to work on anything under 8 feet.