A two-year project honoring Alaska’s veterans is finally complete. On an emotional weekend in Hoonah, service members and their families gathered to celebrate.
A few hundred people sat for five hours in the rain on Saturday to witness the raising of a totem pole honoring the community’s service men and women.
There are a lot of veterans in Hoonah. At least 10% of the population has served in the military — one of the highest numbers per capita in the country. Even before Alaska was a state, many Alaska Natives stepped up to fight for the United States.
Local artist Gordon Greenwald designed and carved the totem pole.
“All you men and women that have stepped forward, we have tried to honor you the best we could with our hands and our tools,” he said.
He’s not a veteran himself, but he wanted to pay tribute to those who’ve served.
“Gunalchéesh,” Greenwald said. “May our hands do you justice. Thank you.”
The base of the pole honors the fallen soldier. Moving upward, there are carvings of combat boots from Operation Desert Storm, a Vietnam-era M16 rifle and a World War II helmet.
Toward the middle are carved dog tags representing each branch of the service, including the Alaska Territorial Guard, and a Tlingit warrior dressed in armor.
“And on the top are the eagle and raven,” Greenwald said. “Now you notice that the eagle and raven are turned slightly back to back. It’s not the cold shoulder, but all you military veterans know ‘I’ve got your back, buddy.’”
Veteran commanders traveled from Sitka, Juneau and Kake to join those from Hoonah. William “Ozzie” Sheakley was the emcee.
“I’m the commander for Juneau Vets so they asked me to emcee over here since I’ve been doing it for a while,” Sheakley said. “The carvers finished last summer, but we weren’t ready to put it up because of the COVID. We wanted to put it up when it was mostly all clear.”
When there was a break in the ceremony for lunch, Sheakley caught up with Hoonah Veterans Commander James Lindoff Jr.
“We were up in Wasilla in ‘98,” Lindoff said. “They got a wall. I told my cousin — he’s passed on — but I told him, ‘We’ll get ours. We’ll get our own.’ Which we are.”
Lindoff was in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
He joked as it started to drizzle again.
“Here comes the rain,” he said. I’m gonna lose my curls now.”
And there was plenty of chanting, singing and dancing to be seen throughout the day; the rain not hindering anyone’s ability to appreciate the weight and joy of the occasion.
The project is a collaboration between the City of Hoonah, the Huna Heritage Foundation, the Hoonah Veterans Committee and Hoonah clan representatives.
The land was donated by Korean War veteran Stanley “Steamie” Thompson who passed away in April. His wife Judy Thompson spoke on his behalf.
“Steamie was born and raised in Hoonah and he was very proud to be from Hoonah,” she said. “He was very proud of his heritage. He was very proud of his family and he was very proud to be a veteran and so that’s why he wanted to dedicate this land to the Huna Heritage Foundation.”
Huna Heritage Foundation Executive Director Amelia Wilson said the totem pole is just the first piece of what will eventually be Huna Veteran’s Memorial Park.
“There will be a memorial wall honoring those Hoonah Veterans who have passed on and that will be behind the totem pole,” Wilson said. “Then there will be some concrete work in the shape of a Tin’aa, which is like a copper shield and it’ll have some brass inlays and then we’ll have some native plants that will be used for landscaping around it to kind of enclose the space in a natural way.”
Wilson added that it felt good to be able to gather for something positive because the few occasions they’d been able to get together recently were for funerals or the passing of loved ones.
“I think in our community and most other communities too, if you haven’t served yourself, somebody in your family or in your social network has served,” Wilson said. “So it’s really something that can unite us and it really showed at the event.”