The healing totem pole will be raised Saturday at Gastineau School. (Photo courtesy of Goldbelt Heritage)

Mending wounds through culture

John Morris still remembers the rabbits that used to hop in between grave markers in the Douglas Island Cemetery.

Growing up on Douglas Island, Morris had a newspaper route that ran past the cemetery, and he learned about his ancestors and culture by observing it. He was 16 years old when the City of Juneau paved over the cemetery in 1956 to make room for the Douglas Highway and Gastineau Elementary School.

Morris, a Yanyeidi Tlingit, said it took a long time for him to begin to move on from that desecration of the burial grounds, and especially from the city burning down the Douglas Indian Village in 1962.

“I had bitter, bitter feelings,” Morris said. “I had a chip on my shoulder, and it took a long time. It took a long, long time. I finally decided that the best thing to do was forgive. You can’t forget, but you can forgive.”

He isn’t the only one looking to begin to heal those wounds, as Goldbelt Heritage Foundation is raising a Raven totem pole Saturday at the Gastineau Elementary School to signal the outset of the healing process. Saturday’s ceremony, which is scheduled to take place from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., will include various speeches and ceremonies, and Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Mayor Ken Koelsch have all been invited to speak.

The Raven pole is the first part of a project that honors both the destruction of the graveyard and the Douglas Indian Village. The second pole will be an Eagle pole at Savikko Park, and is aimed more at memorializing the burning of the village in 1962, Morris said. Morris, who’s on the council for the Douglas Indian Association (DIA), said he will likely get a chance to help carve and paint that second pole.

[Healing history and undoing the silence]

Tom Gamble, the Youth Education Lead Teacher at Goldbelt Heritage, said these totems carry a different meaning than many of the other ones throughout the region.

“It showcases a history that’s not a really pretty history,” Gamble said, “which is an odd opportunity in today’s era when you think about totem poles that stand to exemplify portions of whatever they stand for. They carve them in memory of cancer, or at Anchorage museums. You think of all the reasons that totem poles have gone up, few of them tell this type of a story.”

This story spans generations, from the earliest settlements of the T’áaku Kwáan (the original Tlingit residents of the area) to this current project, known as the Ganeix Gaawu Koodzidi (A Time for Healing) project. Clarence Laiti, President of the DIA, said in a release that the raising of this pole “is the first step of many to restore peace, dignity and respect.”

Goldbelt Heritage — which is the cultural division of Goldbelt, Inc., an Alaska Native corporation in Juneau — applied for and received grants from the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Native Americans, Social & Economic Development Strategies. Six carvers, including Ketchikan Master Carver and Designer Nathan Jackson, worked on the pole. The process was made public, as the pole was on display at Harborview Elementary School as the carvers were working on it.

The pole has been completed for a few months, and is ready to go on display during Saturday’s ceremony. All are welcome to witness it, and the turnout is expected to be quite high. Shuttle bus transportation will be provided from the state of Alaska parking lot near the Juneau Hotel to the Gastineau Elementary School.

“In all, we’ve toned down what it would normally be,” Gamble said. “If we were doing this (full) ceremony, it could be an all-day, all-evening kind of a thing with gifts and names and all kinds of different protocols, but we streamlined the cultural event to a four-hour window so people can appreciate at least a taste of what we offer.”

That’s another goal of “A Time for Healing,” bringing Tlingit and Native culture to the forefront. Morris remembers going to school and being forbidden from speaking Tlingit, and losing much of his connection with the language. Morris said he’s “ashamed” of the fact that he’s not fluent in Tlingit, but thanks to organizations such as Goldbelt Heritage, Sealaska and CCTHITA and DIA, the language and culture are coming back.

Now, however, Morris is excited about the way the language and the culture are returning. Douglas Island has been devoid of totem poles during Morris’ time there, and he’s looking forward to seeing the 26-foot Raven pole rise Saturday.

“I’m really looking forward to that,” Morris said. “It is, in my lifetime, the first totem pole that has been carved and erected in Douglas, so it means a lot to me.”


What: Goldbelt Heritage raising a healing totem pole

Where: Gastineau Elementary School, 1507 Third St., Douglas

When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday

Where to park: Limited parking available at Gastineau Elementary School. Shuttle running from state of Alaska parking lot near Juneau Hotel to school

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at or 523-2271.

A carver works on the healing totem pole in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Goldbelt Heritage)

The healing totem pole will be raised Saturday at Gastineau School. (Photo courtesy of Goldbelt Heritage)

Carvers work on the healing totem pole that will be raised Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Goldbelt Heritage)

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