‘Gut fish, not Alaska’: Totem pole ridicules Trump and Dunleavy

Artist hopes it can make its way to Juneau

Gov. Mike Dunleavy stands at the top of Tlingit master carver Tommy Joseph’s shame pole, which also depicts President Donald Trump. (Courtesy Photo | Kristina Cranston)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy stands at the top of Tlingit master carver Tommy Joseph’s shame pole, which also depicts President Donald Trump. (Courtesy Photo | Kristina Cranston)

There’s a nonexistent approval rating for Gov. Mike Dunleavy and President Donald Trump in Tommy Joseph’s most recent pole.

Joseph, a Tlingit master carver who resides in Sitka, carved a totem pole meant to shame Trump and Dunleavy over the weekend, and it’s received some attention outside his home where it currently stands and on social media.

“I’m compelled, motivated and feel the need to say what I have to say,” Joseph said in an interview.

While the pole has contemporary subject matter in the sitting president and governor of Alaska, it’s made in the spirit of traditional shame or ridicule poles. Shame poles were totem poles meant to tell the story of a misdeed or unpaid debt.

Famously, a pole shaming William Seward, who negotiated the Alaska Purchase, was carved in the 1880s after Seward did not reciprocate gifts and honors received while visiting an Alaska Native village. It was later replaced and dedicated in Saxman in 2017, 150 years after the sale of Alaska.

Joseph compared ridicule poles to the practice of posting a bounced check near a cash register.

Traditionally, Joseph said once the wrong depicted by a totem pole was righted, the pole would be destroyed, and the story would not be told again.

“Will that ever happen?” Joseph asked. “I don’t know.”

[‘We are not defined by our wounds’: Lecture covers ongoing impact of historic trauma on Native people]

The pole was carved in a roughly 48-hour flurry of activity Joseph said, and he was assisted by his wife and apprentice, Kristina Cranston.

Joseph said the 11-foot-6-inch red cedar work that depicts Trump, Twitter birds, Dunleavy and the message “Gut Fish Not Alaska Recall Dunleavy,” and some interactive elements, is the fastest he’s completed a totem pole in his 47 years of carving.

Tommy Joseph’s recently carved shame pole includes interactive elements, such as a chalkboard-like section that allows for messages to be written. Joseph also carved a pacifier that can be placed in the mouth of a likeness of President Donald Trump, who is also depicted by the the pole. (Courtesy Photo | Kristina Cranston)
                                Tommy Joseph’s recently carved shame pole includes interactive elements, such as a chalkboard-like section that allows for messages to be written. Joseph also carved a pacifier that can be placed in the mouth of a likeness of President Donald Trump, who is also depicted by the the pole. (Courtesy Photo | Kristina Cranston)

Tommy Joseph’s recently carved shame pole includes interactive elements, such as a chalkboard-like section that allows for messages to be written. Joseph also carved a pacifier that can be placed in the mouth of a likeness of President Donald Trump, who is also depicted by the the pole. (Courtesy Photo | Kristina Cranston) Tommy Joseph’s recently carved shame pole includes interactive elements, such as a chalkboard-like section that allows for messages to be written. Joseph also carved a pacifier that can be placed in the mouth of a likeness of President Donald Trump, who is also depicted by the the pole. (Courtesy Photo | Kristina Cranston)

“I’ve never, ever been this driven on a project,” Joseph said.

He said while he carved the shame pole, he reflected on the Dunleavy and Trump’s policies that he finds objectionable.

Those include environmental deregulation and Trump’s history of racially charged remarks.

“I’m brown myself, and our brown people all over the world are being treated worse and less than,” Joseph said.

He said the back of the pole will feature a long, red tie —a garment often associated with the president —that will be decorated with things Trump has said.

The back of Tommy Joseph’s ridicule pole meant to shame President Donald Trump and Gov. Mike Dunleavy will feature a long, red tie and quotes from the president. (Courtesy photo | Kristina Cranston)

The back of Tommy Joseph’s ridicule pole meant to shame President Donald Trump and Gov. Mike Dunleavy will feature a long, red tie and quotes from the president. (Courtesy photo | Kristina Cranston)

“It’s not the big tie, it’s the big lie,” Joseph said.

Additionally, Joseph, who is a full-time artist, said he has been impacted directly by Dunleavy’s budget vetoes that cut more than $400 million from a Legislature-approved budget.

The vetoes include slashing more than $130 million in funding for University of Alaska and eliminating funding for the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

[Culture camp teaches ancestral ways]

Joseph was going to contribute a carved canoe to an arts council-supported project and taught at University of Alaska Southeast Sitka prior to the announcement of the vetoes.

“I am directly losing jobs to these cuts,” Joseph said.

He is hoping to take the Trump-Dunleavy shame totem to Juneau, but Joseph said he’s not entirely sure how that will be accomplished.

“I do not know how our ferry system is going to be working,” Joseph said in reference to a strike by Alaska Marine Highway System workers. “Thank you, governor. That’s why this pole exists.”

Joseph said there have been some unexpected donations that he intends to use to bring the pole to the capital city, but he has not been actively fundraising. There is not a crowd funding page set up for the effort.

“Nothing’s in place yet,” Joseph said. “Stay tuned.”

If the pole does make it to Juneau or the governor’s attention, Joseph said there’s a message he hopes is received.

“Think things through and don’t just strip Alaska for your agenda,” Joseph said.


• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.


Sitka artist Tommy Joseph recently carved a totem pole shaming Gov. Mike Dunleavy, top, and President Donald Trump, bottom. Joseph said he would like to bring the pole to Juneau. (Courtesy photo | Kristina Cranston)

Sitka artist Tommy Joseph recently carved a totem pole shaming Gov. Mike Dunleavy, top, and President Donald Trump, bottom. Joseph said he would like to bring the pole to Juneau. (Courtesy photo | Kristina Cranston)

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