IACA Journal: Winter 2014 - page 10

IACA Journal | Winter 2014
The Totem Pole Art of tommy Josephs
Modern themes and traditional carving methods
keep cultural identity alive in alaska
Centuries ago, if you were navigating the waters of the Pacific Northwest, you’d travel by dugout
canoe. Imagine dipping your paddle into the frigid water and moving toward an island where
massive conifers line the shore. The coastal air is dense with fog, so you aren’t sure where you are
landing. But then you see those sculpted beacons of art--totem poles.
By Cindy Ross
These carved red cedar logs--more
than 100 feet tall and as much as 8 feet
around--are information stations. They
announce what village you are entering.
They also record events, personal status,
and land claims. These rugged First Na-
tions peoples have no written language,
so they use art to describe their cultural
identity. Every village carves totem poles
differently and uses specific figures
stacked one atop another: Some crouch
or stand upright, others ride on the
backs of whales; all are interlocked and
The historic town of Sitka, about 100
miles southwest of Juneau on Alaska’s
Baranof Island, contains one of the
world’s first totem pole parks, the Sitka
National Historic Park, dedicated in
1916. Here, you can follow a deeply
quiet, winding trail among enormous
hemlocks and Sitka spruce, and find 14
totem poles scattered throughout the
forest. At the park’s entrance stands the
Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center,
where visitors have the rare opportuni-
ty to watch and interact with modern
Native artists at work.
In the wood studio is totem pole carver
Tommy Josephs, a highly gifted artist
who is emerging into the art world
with as much vitality as the figures on
the poles he carves. Tommy is a mid-
dle-aged, strong, barrel-chested Native
Tlingit with waist-length dark hair. He
cuts it periodically to use in his carved
wooden masks and to adorn the ten-
foot-long tribal dance staffs that he
makes for dance groups. Tommy has
been carving for 35 years, since he was
eight years old and stealing his mother’s
kitchen knives to practice. “It was hard
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