Tonight! Author Seth Kantner on Raven Radio

3 11 2012

One of my favorite things about Sitka is Raven Radio, the community public radio station. The day they got their live streaming up and running was a good, good day: I could listen to Mississippi Delta Blues and Meathead’s Mix Tape even when we were Down South!

Thanks to that live stream, you can enjoy some of KCAW’s eclectic local programs, too, wherever you are. Tune in tonight at 6:30 (that’s Alaska time; 7:30 Pacific) for The Library Show, a conversation between Sitka librarian Sarah Bell and Alaskan author Seth Kantner. I had the treat of sitting in on yesterday’s taping, and it was a great discussion of Alaskan writing, including how “place” can be such a powerful presence as to become a character itself. Do give it a listen if you’re around a computer this evening; I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience with physical place as an important character in your life.


The View From Sitka: Totem Raising, Part 1

10 04 2011

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.

Photo by Tele Aadsen


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?

In the Carving Shed, May 2008 (Photo by Tele Aadsen)

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.]

Remembering Senator Eliason

6 04 2011

One of my early boat kid memories is of my parents pointing out the sleek schooner-troller Karmon Dee fishing alongside us on the drag.  “That’s Senator Eliason’s boat.”

I still remember the new understanding born in my brain that day. Politicians could represent their communities, take action for what they believed in, while simultaneously existing as “real” people.  They could even be someone I might pass on the dock – a salmon-scented, broken-bodied, diesel-fingered fisherman devoted to the same livelihood as my family.

And devoted he was. Senator Eliason passed away on April 3, 2011, after a lifetime of political service that demonstrated his unwavering commitment to Alaska’s wild salmon stocks.  He modeled a long-sighted vision of resource utilization and conservation, a balance of harvester and protector that we’d do well to study.  You can read/hear an eloquent remembrance of his life here, thanks to Raven Radio’s reporting.

My heart goes out to his family and friends. Safe seas and good fishin’ to you, Sir.



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