Under the covered basketball court at Harborview Elementary School in downtown Juneau, a group of carvers have just started working on a Raven totem pole.
It’s one of two healing totems meant to acknowledge atrocities that took place on Douglas Island to the Aak’w Kwáan and T’aaku Kwáan, people who’ve lived in this area for thousands of years.
“The tribe doesn’t want that part of their history to be swallowed up and forgotten completely,” tribal administrator for Douglas Indian Association Andrea Cadiente-Laiti said on the phone Friday.
While the list of losses goes “on and on and on,” Cadiente-Laiti said, she’s referring to two particular events. In 1956, the Douglas Indian Cemetery was paved over to build the Douglas Highway and Gastineau Elementary School. Then, in 1962, the City of Douglas burned down the Douglas Indian Village to make room for the harbor and Savikko Park.
“We have one member on the Douglas Indian Association Tribal Council, John Morris, who was there as a young man. He watched his home being burned down,” Cadiente-Laiti said. “All the Douglas Indian Village residents were displaced and they weren’t compensated for relocation. If they were, it was very nominal.”
She said that era was a time of extreme racism.
“They did things because they could do things, they seized things because they could seize things and they took advantage through manipulation of government regulations to determine what they were indeed able to take,” Cadiente-Laiti said. “We knew there was a huge cemetery where that school is sitting.”
In more recent years, Cadiente-Laiti said DIA had been working hard to inform the community and the city government what had happened when “lo and behold, the unearthed graves.”
Gravesites were dug up in June 2012 during renovation and construction work of Gastineau School.
“That brought to the forefront some of the travesties that occurred there,” Cadiente-Laiti said.
It was devastating to the tribe, especially the elders.
“I described what they went through during this as being akin to the grieving cycle; the whole range of emotions happened with these elders. When the gravesites were unearthed, these elders began to think about their own loved ones, their grandparents that were buried in that cemetery, not knowing where they are even buried — it opened up their grieving all over again,” Cadiente-Laiti said.
“This unearthing created a visualization of what had taken place there. It was like our ancestors calling out, ‘Look at what they have done to us,’” DIA Tribal Council member Paul Marks said on the phone Thursday.
Marks led a blessing of the log currently being carved and the carvers on Memorial Day. The nearly 26-foot totem pole will stand at Gastineau Elementary School.
“It’s to commemorate those that were buried in that area,” Marks said. “It validates that there were graves there for a lot of people.”
‘A time for healing’ and passing on tradition
The group of carvers started shaping the pole this week. Their work area at Harborview Elementary School is fenced off. On Thursday, a daughter of one of the carvers was hanging out and helping to sweep red cedar pieces into neat piles. Tools like chisels, mallets and adzes surround the pole. Just outside the fencing, a few kids played basketball nearby.
Lead carver Mick Beasley walked around, giving advice to the three apprentice carvers there that day and an intermediate carver, who serves as a mentor. It’s Beasley’s first time leading a group to carve a totem.
“I just try and figure out how to keep everyone busy, keep them from whacking each other. Safety is a big thing,” he said.
Master carver Nathan Jackson of Ketchikan designed the totem and the goal is to have it finished in September.
“I think we’ll do fine,” Beasley said.
The Raven totem pole and an Eagle one, which is being carved later, are part of a project called, “A Time For Healing.” The 40-foot Eagle totem will stand at Savikko Park, overlooking the former Douglas Indian Village.
Last year, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation got a $1.15 million grant to carve the totems, preserve traditional knowledge through the master-apprentice carving program and provide a variety of educational opportunities over the next two years, said project manager Fred White. Goldbelt Heritage has been worked closely with DIA and the Juneau School District.
Apprentice carver Herb Sheakley said he’s excited to get to carve every day.
“This is my first huge project. The biggest thing I’ve done before this was a frog bowl,” he said.
For as much fun as he’s having, the reason the totem is being carved is not lost on him.
“It means a lot to me for people to understand what our people went through and how much we’ve all lost. And even now when we’re working on this, we’re not speaking our own language; we’re speaking English,” Sheakley said.
Carving is one way for Sheakley to connect with his culture. Another is learning to speak Tlingit. For almost a year, he’s been a Tlingit language apprentice and has been working with elders.
“I sit down with them, talk with them and record them. I learn 10 to 12 new things every day I’m with them. There’s so much knowledge I need to soak up and pass on to the next generation,” Sheakley said.
Beasley called Sheakley a big asset to the project.
“He knows how to use the tools, he’s got a good eye and he’s young,” he said.
Beasley called all the apprentice carvers strong. He’s working on building up their hands. He spends time with each of them as they work on different parts of the pole, trying to teach symmetry and the mechanics of carving.
At the same time Beasley is passing on tradition and culture.
“That’s a given. That’s exactly what we’re doing. Our activity is doing that. That’s everything,” he said.
Beasley said he doesn’t try to define that aspect of carving. He learned to carve in high school through the Juneau Indian Studies program.
“I was class of ’76. They had the most beautiful yellow cedar in the world and they let us carve as much as we wanted, and that was the seed,” Beasley said.
He said, by leading the totem carving, he’s doing the same thing.
“It’s planting seeds and we’ll reap the harvest off this.”