Carvers begin on new Gajaa Hit totem poles

Apprentice Josh Yates, left, and carver Joe Young work on a red cedar log destined to be a new totem pole. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/ KTOO)

Sealaska Heritage Institute Art Director Rico Worl rubbed his fingers against the 26-foot tall Raven totem pole in front of the Gajaa Hit building off Willoughby Avenue on Wednesday.

Rico Worl

Small bits of the soft wood flecked off.

“The wood is decaying,” Worl said.

And that’s just the beginning of his damage report.

“You can see this pole … the wing that fell off, a beak fell off,” he said, gesturing upwards. “Multiple parts have fallen off.”

A few feet down the sidewalk, he points out how the powerful Taku winds flow down Willoughby and strip the paint from the Eagle totem pole.

The Tlingit artwork has seen better days. And yet, flanking a similarly weathered Tlingit screen, the 35-year-old woodwork collectively still creates the imposing façade of a traditional clan house.

The Raven pole is missing a wing, among other things. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/ KTOO)

Around the corner, the project led by the Sealaska Heritage Institute has begun to replace the two aging Tlingit totem poles and the screen.

Wednesday was the first day of work outside the Gajaa Hit building in the Indian Village area of Juneau. Red cedar was in the air, and sawdust and wood chips piled up. Brothers Joe and T.J. Young were chain sawing, hammering and axing a cavity into the first of two massive logs.

The Haida carvers came from Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island. They’re the same brothers responsible for the Eagle totem pole at the University of Alaska Southeast campus.

There’s an aggressive, but tentative timeline to have the first pole finished by October 1st, before the weather turns, Worl said. The second pole and new screen are scheduled for next summer.

Worl wasn’t ready to disclose the exact cost of the carving project, but said a $150,000, one-to-one matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts was a major part of it.

To retire the existing poles, a lowering ceremony is in the works. Traditions can vary, Worl said, but old totem poles may be “returned to the forest” – that is, put out to decay naturally—or they may be burned. He says it’s a decision that will be made with the Indian Village community later on.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute donated the cedar logs and hired the carvers. Additional grants came from the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council and the Juneau Community Foundation. And the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, which owns the building, is paying for apprentice carvers.

After the Young brothers complete some initial work at the Gajaa Hit building, their carving operation will move to a more prominent work zone at Sealaska Plaza.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Joe and T.J. Young’s tribe. A previous version said they are Tlingit. They are Haida.


Recent headlines