This article has been updated to include additional information.
Hundreds celebrated the raising of the first 12 of 30 totem poles along the Juneau waterfront that make up Kootéeyaa Deiyí, Totem Pole Trail, during a dedication ceremony held Saturday in downtown Juneau.
Over the last week, the poles carved by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists were raised along the waterfront, each depicting the crests of their respective clans and tribes. Most of the artists spent more than six months creating the poles after being commissioned by Sealaska Heritage Institute, which launched the Kootéeyaa Deiyí initiative in 2021 through a $2.9 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. The 12 now dedicated poles can be seen along the waterfront, and soon will be joined by an additional 18 more.
During the multi-hour event, SHI’s Heritage Plaza downtown was overflowing as dozens of students from the Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary led the procession of the event that featured speeches from dozens of renowned Alaska Native artists and leaders from across Southeast Alaska about the historic trail.
The ceremony also celebrated the unveiling of “Faces of Alaska,” a new installation of five, 4-foot bronze masks that represent the diversity of the Alaska Native cultures including the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Alutiiq and Athabascan peoples, and a combined mask for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples, according to the SHI.
SHI President Rosita Worl said the poles will further the continuous goal of SHI and the City and Borough of Juneau of making Juneau the Northwest Coast art capital of the world.
“Gunalchéesh to clans and tribes whose crests and masks are represented here, and to the master artists who created these iconic works that will stand among the greatest art collections of the world,” she said.
Fran Houston, cultural Leader of the A’akw Kwáan, said the poles will serve to bring unity and positivity to Juneau and the Alaska Native community.
“We need to come together, and that’s what we’re doing. We see these beautiful, beautiful totem poles out here, I’ve taken the walk through the walkway to the channel — it’s beautiful,” she said. “All of this will bring us together, support each other, love one another,” she said.
Renowned Haida master artist Robert Davidson congratulated the artists for taking on the challenge of creating a totem pole and thanked them for what the poles will mean for the future of Alaska Native art in Juneau and Southeast Alaska.
“These totem poles mark this time in our history, the strength we are gaining in reclaiming our rightful place in the world,” he said, continuing. “Art is our official language throughout our history, to help keep our spirit alive, now arts helps us reconnect with our history and ceremonies.”
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat and the first Alaska Native person to represent Alaska in Congress, also spoke to the crowd, beginning her speech as she wiped away tears following a standing ovation.
“Usually these tears swell up when the introduction song comes, Walter Soboleff Jr. always laughs at me, but when the dancers come in, it makes me bawl like a baby,” she said. “Because of all those decades where we were not supposed to be proud, we were not supposed to be here, we were not supposed to know our language and our names and our cultures and our clans. All that information was underground for a while, but now it is here, and it is loud and it’s proud.”
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