Tlingit master carver recreates Haida totem pole for Sitka National Historical Park

Tlingit carver Tommy Joseph sets a fist and feather he carved out of wood on top of a yellow cedar log. Joseph, who was born in Ketchikan, has carved nearly twenty totem poles in Sitka. His latest is a reproduction of the “Waasgo Pole” for Sitka National Historical Park. (Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Tlingit master carver Tommy Joseph is prolific: He’s created nearly twenty totem poles in Sitka alone, not to mention his work around Southeast and in other parts of the state and country. His latest project is a reproduction of the “Waasgo Pole” for the Sitka National Historical Park.

Joseph holds out a realistic wooden fist attached to a six-foot pole and gives a socially-distanced fist bump. Then he gets to work inside a roped-off shed tucked behind the visitor’s center at the Sitka National Historical Park.

Joseph uses a curved tool called an elbow adze to smooth and peel away bits of wood from a yellow cedar log. He’s still in the early stages of transforming the log into a 23-foot totem pole.

“What you see in front of us here — the raw log — this is the work part. It’s been a lot of work to get to here,” Joseph says. “But tomorrow I’ll actually start drawing the lines in. The work stops here tonight. It doesn’t become work anymore. Now it’s being creative and matching up and making the lines flow and connect and do what they’re supposed to do.”

Joseph is working on the park’s second reproduction of the “Waasgo Pole,” which tells the story of a Haida legend. The park no longer has the original. Park records indicate that it came to Sitka around the turn of the century from Koianglas, a Kaigani Haida village on Long Island in southern Southeast Alaska. Territorial Gov. John Brady placed the pole and several others along the park’s present-day Totem Trail.

Carver George Benson then created a reproduction in the 1930s that was moved inside Totem Hall after it fell and suffered damage in the 1990s. Sitka National Historical Park’s Jessica Perkins says they want to place Joseph’s reproduction outside, where the original once stood.

“And this Waasgo Pole is one of the few that currently is not along the trail,” she says. “And so, therefore, this is part of a larger effort to restore that historic cultural landscape.”

Perkins says park staff have been reaching out to Haida communities to make sure the park’s history of the pole is accurate. It’s a new effort to make sure Haida culture is appropriately represented along Totem Trail.

“And so I’m really excited to be able to share the whole story and make sure we’ve got the whole story of the pole,” she says. “And make sure we’re representing that completely.”

And, Perkins says, the park is excited to work with Joseph again. This isn’t his first pole for the park. During a typical summer, they’d have artists working in the visitor’s center, but they’re closed because of the pandemic. Joseph’s outdoor studio allows the public to observe an experienced carver from a safe distance.

And experienced he is. Joseph started carving in 1972.

“Third grade was my first opportunity to work with a knife on a piece of wood. And, I liked it and kept doing it and have every opportunity to be around carvers,” he says. “When I was kid, I would hang out I was one of the quietest kids around. But I’d just observe and watch a lot. And then go do it. Go home and try to do it.”

Tlingit carver Tommy Joseph in his workshop behind Totem Hall. He says he prefers red cedar logs to yellow because they’re easier to carve and more durable, but red cedar can only be found further south in Alaska. (Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

When asked what he loves about carving, he says, “Well, taking a big raw piece of wood and turning it into something, that’s pretty cool.”

He’s happy to be out of the house and working during the pandemic, which threw a wrench in some of his other projects. And this isn’t the only way he’s channeling his energy right now. He’s also been carving politically satirical masks and working on a 20-foot dugout canoe.

Joseph says his work is a good balance of realism and satire.

Members of the public can visit with Joseph while he works Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4p.m.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.

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