Raising Indigenous Art and Stories in Alaska’s Capital

a person shaving the bark off of a log Apprentice carver Lee Burkhart (Tlingit) helps artist Nicholas Galanin (Lingít/Unanga) create a totem pole that will feature crests of the Kaagwaantaan clan. Photo: Bethany Sonsini Goodrich/Sealaska Heritage

Master carvers are working with the Sealaska Heritage Institute to create the Totem Pole Trail—ten sculptures celebrating Indigenous tribes who had been historically excluded from Juneau's monuments.

In a sense, it was a controversial statue of William Seward that kickstarted Kootéeya Deiyí, the Totem Pole Trail in Juneau, Alaska.

Seward was the United States Secretary of State who brokered the purchase of the Alaska territory in 1867, nearly a century before it became a state. His bronze likeness in the capital city gave Rosita Worl, a member of the Tlingit tribe, a big idea.

“Look around, you see all these monumental art pieces celebrating the colonization of Alaska, but you don’t see our art,” says Worl, an anthropologist and the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, which preserves and promotes the cultural legacies of the Tlingit, the Haida, and the Tsimshian tribes who call the region home. “We were invisible here. Our cultures weren’t evident, and it began with the expropriation of our land.”

“That really provoked me to say, ‘We’ve got to put our presence here.’” 

carver working on a totem poleArtist Tommy Joseph (Tlingit), a master carver, at work on his totem pole honoring the Eagle clan. Photo: Bethany Sonsini Goodrich/Sealaska Heritage

So, Worl got to work. Under her stewardship, Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) embarked on the Totem Pole Trail. This Mellon Foundation-funded initiative has enlisted nine Indigenous master carvers and their apprentices to initially create ten original totem poles that will be raised throughout the city in 2023. Most of the master carvers are located outside of Juneau, in areas accessible only by boat and with scant economic opportunity; by design, the pole-carving project offers an infusion of capital into local economies, and pays the master carvers and their apprentices a wage. 

Each master carver is partnered with a tribal clan and SHI to develop the themes and stories depicted on the poles. The master carvers make 3-foot miniature models of their pole for review by clan representatives before starting on the final product. Eventually, SHI plans to install 30 such poles in Juneau and along its waterfront; indeed, waterfronts are where totem poles traditionally stand.

“Back in the day, you’d go by the pole in your canoe and you’d read it like a book. You’d say, ‘So-and-so lives there and he’s in the Raven clan,’” says T. J. Young, a member of the Haida tribe and one of the master carvers at work on two of the ten poles. “It’s a book or a snapshot of a period in time.”

Totem poles typically depict “our relationship with the environment around us, which has sustained us for the last couple of thousands of years,” Young continues. “Animals are not to be hunted and killed; they are part of us. That’s why we respect them and take them on as clans and crests.”

carver creating a totem poleCarver T. J. Young (Haida) at work on his piece honoring the Tlingit Raven clan. Photo: Kai Monture/Sealaska Heritage

Ricardo Worl, Rosita’s son and SHI’s communications and publications director, elaborates.  

“It could be a wolf or a bear design,” Ricardo Worl says. “They also have spirit elements to them that are represented, so it’s a way of reaffirming that this is your clan’s house. This is your clan’s land. Sometimes the totem poles tell a significant story or of an event that may have occurred. Often they would be raised in honor of a clan or an individual of high stature—someone who could commission and afford to pay an artist to do that.”

The Totem Pole Trail introduces a positive representation of the region’s Indigenous people into the public sphere. Their long absence from it was a missed opportunity, Rosita Worl says, robbing Juneau’s one million tourists a year of the chance to learn about Alaska’s rich tribal history and customs. 

The Trail is “going to bring our traditional beliefs out into the open,” she says. “One of them that I think is very important is our spirituality. These poles embody the spirits of our clans. The spirits of our ancestors.”

carver working on a totem poleArtist Michael Beasley (Tlingit), who also serves as a Sealaska director, at work on his piece that will feature crests from the L’uknax.ádi clan. Photo: Stacy Unzicker/Sealaska Heritage

Ricardo Worl adds that such learning opportunities are not only meant for tourists and non-native people. He says that as SHI has met with clan elders to develop pole themes, it became “clear that not all of them knew the stories behind their crests or designs. That’s part of the colonization aspect. Stories were lost. Language was lost. And so [we are] working with them to help research and restructure elements of their clan history.”

In a far more concrete way, the Totem Pole Trail creates opportunities for Indigenous artists to learn the skill and art of totem pole making and empowers them to carry forward their unique cultural inheritances for the benefit of future generations.

The Trail makes “a statement that this is our homeland—of the Haida, the Tlingit, and the Tsimshian,” says Rosita Worl. “We still have a very viable culture. And that’s in spite of the decades of public policy and Christianity that sought to colonize and eradicate Native cultures. Even after all of that, we are here.”