Downtown Juneau has a new look. Standing in the heart of the capital city are three bronze totem poles – each about 8 feet tall.

Sealaska Heritage Institute commissioned three Southeast Alaska artists to create the poles -- each representative of a different heritage: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian.  

The poles were first carved out of red cedar then shipped to Seattle where they were cast in bronze. Artists involved say the totem poles symbolize cultural resilience.

“That they are made in bronze makes a statement of our real lives that we live nowadays,” said Tsimshian artist and carver David R. Boxley. Our cultures aren’t just ancient things in the past. We’re current. We’re living, progressing with the times. It’s an opportunity to show that our cultures are alive and vibrant.”

Collaborating with Boxley on their own poles were Tlingit artist Stephen Jackson, who splits time between Ketchikan and New York, and Haida artist T.J. Young, who splits time between Hydaburg and Anchorage. 

Jackson began carving under his father, master carver Nathan Jackson. His individual and collaborative works in Seattle, Juneau and Ketchikan and Bremen, Germany. He has also had work exhibited in the Alaska State Museum.

In a statement, Jackson said his pole “depicts the complexity of the way in which Tlingit culture places value on feminine strength.”
“There is a period when people thought the art was dying, that the carving, the traditions, the mastery associated with such art was no longer present  in the people," Jackson said about the art. "This provides another opportunity for people to see work of a new generation of artists perhaps."

 

Young’s work can also be seen throughout Alaska. Working with his brother Joe, the two have poles standing in Juneau – works seen downtown and at the University of Alaska Southeast – plus Hydaburg, Sitka and Girdwood’s Alyeska Resort. 

Young’s newly unveiled work depicts the image and story of Wasgo, a supernatural Haida figure known for having the power to successfully hunt killer whales.

Young served as an apprentice to master Haida artist Robert Davidson, an Alaska born dance leader whose art studios are just outside Vancouver.

“I’m really new at this, 10 years to 15 years in,” he said. “In 30 years, you’ll be able to tell my style. For now, it’s just my interpretation of what Haida art looks like.” 

Boxley's bronze work features the Txeemsm -- or Raven -- the mythical hero of ancient Tsimshian stories. Above Txeemsm are four human figures that represent the clans.

Boxley also learned from Davidson as well as his father, David A. Boxley, who has carved more than 75 totem poles, including recent collaborations with his son that now stand in Seattle and Orlando, Fla. Boxley also devotes time toward revitalizing the Tsimshian language, Sm'algyax, which has fewer than 10 fluent speakers in Alaska. 

"The art is the physical manifestation of the culture," Boxley said. "The culture is defined by the language."

These poles are also known as house posts, traditionally used to support roofs or attached to the front of a house.

Many of the poles’ designs feature a style called formline, described as an art where lines taper and swell, creating shapes used to depict humans and animals. The lines move while constantly changing width and direction. The artists original wood carving remains in its original form and will be displayed elsewhere in downtown Juneau.

“These posts are a sign of cultural perpetuation,” Boxley said. “The resurgence began with my father’s generation. This is a continuance and a strengthening of our culture. Northwest coast cart. These posts show a strength and resilience.”

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