I’ve yet to find anywhere in the world that gives me the same sense of peace as Sitka does. Just pulling into the harbor and stepping onto the dock, my body relaxes bone-marrow deep. And if I had to pick a single place where that slow down, breathe deep, let go effect is strongest, it would be Totem Park.
Strange to find peace on soil so scarred by grief. This dense Tongass rainforest spooning the sea is the site of the Tlingit/Russian 1804 Battle of Sitka. Formally known as Sitka National Historical Park, these 113-acres gained national monument status in 1910, in commemoration of that combat.
2010 marked Totem Park’s Centennial. A year’s worth of ceremonies are concluding with the raising of a new totem. Tommy Joseph, world-renowned carver and Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center Artist-in-Residence, was commissioned to do this project. A project he would typically give 5-6 months, completed in just over one.
An achievement like this takes serious teamwork. Tommy describes his policy on drafting volunteer as this: If you drop by the carving shed more than twice, “we’re gonna put a tool in your hand and put you to work.”
I considered that. Imagined the honor and responsibility of such a task. And I marveled at Tommy’s casually inclusive attitude, wondering: Would it truly be “okay” for a white person – like me – to participate in such sacred creation?
As a liberal arts graduate and former social worker, I know the weight of my invisible duffle bag of white privilege, luggage that accompanies me everywhere. I’m not one of those fishermen who believe treaty rights are a personal attack, and have walked away from dock conversations with those who do. I have no patience for white “shamans,” and feel uneasy with the appropriation of cultural traditions commodified as “cool.”
I tried to imagine what it would be like to shave away bits of cedar, to witness the story within that particular log revealing itself, a friend who exposes more of their true self as time and trust build. And I wondered, how would Tlingit carvers feel, working alongside hands that wore the same skin as those who chopped down totems, stole homeland and history, stole the very words from their ancestors’ mouths?
These are valid questions. But perhaps they’re more reflective of my own personal process. Sitkans are about getting the work done, and bringing a totem to life requires many workers.
Whenever a pole raising is scheduled, the Sitka Sentinel prints a call for volunteers, reminders that “we need hundreds of people to get this up.” While I’m hanging back uncertain, questioning my place, Tommy Joseph and other cultural healers are waving their arms in exasperated invitation. “C’mon, we can’t do this alone!”
Because – as Sitkans have taught me – if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a town to raise a totem.
[Raven Radio has a great interview with Tommy and the volunteers, which you can hear/read here. Though the pole was scheduled to go up on April 9, it has been delayed by the potential government shutdown.]