IACA Journal: Winter 2014 - page 13

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Most modern totem poles are partially painted with a minimum
of colors. Years ago, carvers used dried salmon eggs that con-
tained high levels of oil, plus copper sulfite, iron oxide, graphite,
and charcoal, mixing those pigments with urine--after they
chewed the dried salmon eggs and spat them out to extract the
oil. Tommy uses ordinary latex house paint. To seal and protect
the poles, he brushes on a heavy coat of paraffin oil.
The carved log will then be fastened onto a solid support of
yellow cedar, which is buried as much as seven feet in the ground,
depending on the height of the pole. The yellow cedar will last for
75 to 100 years.
Tommy has a splendid way of inserting his witty personality in
his work. “You never see a whale on top of a bear head. You never
see real creatures walking around with other creatures on their
shoulders. That’s the fun and creative part,” he says. “And, how do
you make the creatures look half human, for many of our native
stories talk about animals going back and forth between the two
Although certain elements of design help guide the carver, there’s
still plenty of room for the craft to evolve. For example, Tommy
incorporated the traditional and the modern in an interior pole
he designed for the local native Shee Atika Corporation. The tra-
ditional eagle and raven stand at the bottom holding up the fig-
ures, but above them is a copper shield (from shingles that blew
off the nearby Russian Orthodox Church). In the wooden wing
of a bird, Tommy embedded glass beads in an Athabasken flower
design. Another wing has an embedded whale rib that Tommy
found on the beach. An Aleut hunting visor has sea lion whiskers
decorated with glass beads. On the very top of the pole, perches a
young boy and girl, symbolizing the future, with shining eyes of
abalone shells and real mother of pearl buttons on their robes.
“My life has had some bumpy roads,” Tommy shares. “I didn’t
know who I was. But when I started carving totem poles, I began
to feel connected to my people, my history, my culture. My work
makes me feel like I’m part of the big picture.”
The shoreline plank homes and lines of totem poles crowding the
coast may be a part of the past, but the art still lives on in carvers
like Tommy Josephs. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, dozens
of totem pole carvers are bringing them back. Carving totem
poles is a way of saying, We are still here. My people are still here
and we are strong.
Cindy Ross is a freelance writer living in New Ringgold, PA. She can be
reached at
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