A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Louise Kane as Stanley “Steamie” Thompson’s mother. Kane was Thompson’s grandmother. The article has been updated to reflect that. Additionally, the article has been updated to reflect the accompanying photographs were taken by Ian Johnson. It has also been updated to clarify that the City of Hoonah was the primary sponsor of the project.
As the rain paused in the early morning of July 24, 2021 hundreds of veterans and their families made the trek to Hoonah via plane and catamaran to witness a totem pole raising ceremony in honor of Indigenous Veterans. The totem pole was a collaborative effort between the local tribal government, the Huna Heritage Foundation, local corporations and Stanley “Steamie” Thompson, a Hoonah local whose last wish was for this totem pole to be erected.
Led by the keynote speaker, Brig. Gen. Wayne Don, director of the joint staff for the Alaska National Guard and highest-ranking Alaska Native in the military, the ceremony featured speeches from veterans of every generation. Each speech began with introductions on military branch, rank and position followed by clan affiliation. Looking out into the sea of jackets with the yellow “ALASKA NATIVE VETERAN” patches, heads nodded with each speaker, quietly acknowledging their sacrifices.
A core reason for Steamie’s desire to facilitate this totem pole was to honor the enormous and often under-recognized contributions made by Indigenous veterans, especially from his beloved hometown. According to the Veteran’s Association of America, Indigenous people make up 1.7% of military personnel. While that may sound small, Indigenous people only make up 1.5% of the Unites States’ total population. They participate in the military at higher rates than any other minority.
With nearly 10% of the population having served in the military, Hoonah has one of the highest densities of veterans per capita in the nation. For small, close-knit communities like Hoonah, the impact of even one person leaving reverberates throughout the community. This veteran pole honors the sacrifice of those veterans, their families and the community as a whole while also paying important homage to the town’s history as the largest Tlingit village. The ceremony was an opportunity for the veterans to bring one of the most sacred practices of their culture into their military lives.
When creating the totem pole, carver and Hoonah local Gordon Greenwald ensured the pole was inclusive of every veteran. Starting at the base of the pole are Desert Storm boots beneath a Vietnam-era rifle and World War II helmet. Dog tags from each branch of the military, including the unique Alaska Territorial Guard, flank a Tlingit warrior. At the very top are a raven and an eagle, facing outward.
“It’s not the cold shoulder, but all you military veterans know ‘I’ve got your back, buddy.’” Greenwald said during the ceremony as he gazed up at his creation. The Tlingit name for the totem pole, or kooteya, is X’i Gaa Kaawu Dei Kee Dul Shat Kooteya which translates to “Lifting Our Warriors Totem Pole.”
Alaska’s Unique Military History
Alaska has a unique and fascinating military history that is rarely shared. During WWII, the Alaskan Territorial Guard was established, a volunteer branch of the military created to defend the region against Japanese invasion. More than 6,300 Alaska Natives from 107 communities served in the Alaskan Territorial Guard during WWII. With 6,640 miles of coastline, the Alaskan Native troops proved crucial in defense plans. Being some of the most challenging lands to protect, the Indigenous troops knew the region better than anyone. They served as lookouts, even defending their homeland by shooting down incendiary balloon bombs. Following the war, Indigenous ATG veterans set their sights on the challenges on our own shores and began tackling the injustices afflicting their communities. They began fighting Indigenous segregation and successfully passed the first anti-discrimination law in the region.
In 2008, declassified military files revealed Tlingit veterans were used as Code Talkers in World War II. Guarding the nation’s most private information, these five Alaskan Natives were sworn to secrecy about their duties, their families even unaware of the critical role they played in protecting our country. It wasn’t until 2013 that these 5 service members were properly recognized with a gold medal for the tribe and silver medals to each individual. These five men were Robert “Jeff” David Sr. from Haines, Mark Jacobs Jr. and Harvey Jacobs, George Lewis Jr. and Richard Bean Sr. of Hoonah.
At the award ceremony, tribal leader Rosita Worl, who is also president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, discussed the irony of the U.S. military utilizing the Tlingit language. From the moment they arrived on the shores of Southeast Alaska, the U.S. government had long-persecuted and suppressed the use of Native languages. Boarding schools shamed and punished young Indigenous children for using their Native languages, causing what is now referred to as “The Lost Generation”. Today, fewer than 150 people can speak Lingít fluently, classifying it formally as “a dying language”; a “dying” language that undoubtedly saved many lives. Thankfully there are countless people and institutions working hard to revitalize the language and restore its presence in the region.
While the U.S. military was using the Tlingit language to keep the nation’s secrets, the government was harvesting 100 million board feet of spruce off of Tlingit Aani every year to build fighter planes. Known as the Alaskan Spruce Log Program, the high-quality spruce that is so incredibly culturally significant to Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples were taken in masses to support the war.
American wars have taken lives and resources from Southeast Alaska and the Indigenous people that have cared for these lands for 10,000 years. Through generations of persecution, the celebration of Indigenous heritage has been shamed. Times have changed. The ceremony in Hoonah is an example of individuals, tribal organizations and governments and local corporations coming together to change the culture. Challenging our institutions and governments locally to advance equity, recognition, and improve quality of life for the original and Indigenous caretakers of ‘American’ soil.
This is not the first veteran’s pole to be erected in Southeast, nor is it the first monument to Indigenous veterans even in Hoonah. Just 500 feet away from the ceremony is Hoonah Veterans’ Memorial Sea Walk. 200 miles south is an Indigenous veterans pole in Klawock. Peppered throughout the Southeast are these powerful monuments that depict the critical role Alaskan Native peoples have played in our nation’s history.
Stanley “Steamie” Thompson is the local veteran who envisioned this ceremony and donated the land to make it a reality. Thompson also happens to be a relative of mine. My family’s history in Hoonah dates back to the mid-1800s. My grandmother, Steamie’s first cousin, was born in Juneau and spent the first years of her life in Hoonah and Juneau. Her mother ran the L. Kane Store, a community hub and general store in town that is now a coffee shop. Both of them eventually moved and settled down in Washington state.
When Steamie found out his grandmother, Louise Kane had left him two plots of land in downtown Hoonah, he began thinking of ideas of what to do with them. In his later years, Steamie felt a strong calling to his hometown and his grandmother Louise Kane. He wanted to do something that honored her and his experience in Hoonah.
Partnering with Amelia Wilson of the Huna Heritage Foundation, plans for the totem pole began. The City of Hoonah was the primary sponsor of the project. This pole was part of the city’s ongoing Totem Pole project. The city is on its third pole currently, the Veterans Pole was our second in this effort.
The cedar was sourced from Prince of Wales island, Sealaska donated the cement base, Gordon Greenwald was contracted to carve and after years of planning the totem pole was complete. Unfortunately, Steamie Thompson passed away in the spring of 2021. His greatest wish was that this totem pole be completed and the space he inherited be a permanent reminder of his mother and the Indigenous veterans of his hometown.
Growing up, Alaska always felt very far away. My heritage was evident only in the few stories still told and in the beautiful art that adorned my great-grandparent’s suburban Seattle home. Walking through Hoonah, my family’s last names were everywhere. Shotter creek, L. Kane Store. “There’s your family’s old fox farm.” and “There’s the cold storage company your
grandmother’s uncle sold!” people would explain as I told them my connection with the town. The stories always started first with a “Welcome Home” and a soft smile.
Just as the ceremony proved to be a reunion for veterans across the region, it reunited my family with Hoonah. Twelve of my family members traveled from far and wide to witness the ceremony. It brought us to stories we never would’ve known and people we had deep connections with.
Supporting Our Veterans Through Trying Times
This ceremony also came during a critical time for veterans and active service members. With the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan, many veterans are struggling emotionally with wounds and memories reopening. The abrupt end to America’s longest war does not mark the end of the mental toll it took on veterans across the country and here at home in the communities scattered across Southeast Alaska.
Lucas Goddard is an Indigenous Tlingit and Aleut Iraq war veteran and director of Waypoint For Veterans, an outdoor therapy non-profit for service members. “For vets who are already dealing with PTSD, this could be a tipping point for them. So having programs that reach out to them is definitely needed.” He is concerned for the well-being of all Veterans at this time and encourages people to extend extra care and gratitude to friends and family who have served.
Located in Sitka, Waypoint for Veterans provides outdoor excursions for veterans, emergency responders and active service members. These excursions allow veterans to heal in nature surrounded by people who see them and understand the complicated experiences they’ve had. Goddard hatched the idea for Waypoint after seeing the remarkable impact that bringing members of his platoon to Sitka had on their trajectory of healing and coping.
While it might not be commonly known, in Sitka, similar to Hoonah, 8% of the population are veterans. “You don’t see that though,” Goddard says. “Like when there’s a Veteran’s Day parade, you don’t see that.” In addition to the effects the US’s exit from Afghanistan is having on veterans, recent studies show the pandemic has increased generalized anxiety in veterans. For PTSD, anxiety and depression, pathways to healing usually begin with reaching out. Reaching out has been complicated with social distancing guidelines and virtual resources both difficult to find and navigate. Though making the effort to recognize, care for, and learn from the veterans in your life, can encourage healing for you both during a particularly challenging time.
July’s ceremony was a much-needed break from the isolation that everyone had been experiencing, especially for the veterans who were honored and their families. The ceremony began with a quote from host, William “Ozzie” Sheakley.
“Hopefully this ceremony can be a little bit of healing for us all,” Sheakley said.
During these tumultuous times, we all need a little healing and community.
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Resources can be found online at: https://nvf.org/veteran-resources/.
• The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. We envision self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.