On Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, the restoration of rivers goes hand-in-hand with the restoration of cultural traditions.
I’m having lunch with members of the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, a federally recognized indigenous tribe, following a morning of collecting data for stream assessments (covered in detail in yesterday’s blog). Haida community members were trained in ecological monitoring protocol so they could restore streams important for their community’s food and culture.
We sit along the stream eating venison sandwiches and salmon spread, discussing the science. Tony Christianson, the enthusiastic thirty-something mayor of Hydaburg and head of the community’s natural resources program, waves me over to his car. “I want to show you something,” he says. “You can’t understand what we’re trying to do on the streams without seeing what else is happening in our community.”
Christianson drives me to a building that has become a center of Hydaburg cultural life. As we walk inside, the smell of cedar fills the air as men quietly carve, chip and shape totem poles. “We are the people of the salmon and the people of the cedar,” explains Christianson. “We spent all spring and summer putting up salmon. The rest of the year, we carved.”
Intense logging and other habitat degradation seriously affected the salmon, but the fish still provide for the Haida. The story of totem pole carving is one of even greater loss—and restoration.
“There Was a Great Void”
Totem pole carving was long an important tradition for the Haida, a way of passing on stories of the world and how to behave in it. But in the 1930’s, the U.S. government made totem pole carving and other Haida traditions illegal.
“They believed that to save the man you had to kill the Indian in him,” says Terrance “Hagoo” Peele, Tony’s father and today an active carver. “They believed that tradition is the enemy. They ended our traditions and made us Safeway Indians. There was a great void.”
The prohibition on totem pole carving was lifted in 1962; by that time, though, the traditional knowledge behind it had been largely lost. Hydaburg’s totem park—a collection of poles in the center of town– had not had a new totem pole since 1938.
Another community of Prince of Wales Island, Klawock, had a similar story. But 22 years ago, a teacher named Jonathan Rowan decided to enlist his students in restoring the totem pole carving tradition. Hydaburg community members suggested I visit Rowan’s shop to see what was happening there.
It’s abuzz with activity: students and others hurry around, moving logs, carving them, painting them. At the center is Rowan, a thick-armed former Marine who calls out orders as he carves.
“Look at this,” he says, pointing around. “This place is hopping right now. We have poles being carved. We have poles being painted. It’s awesome.”
When Rowan was young, the Tlingit people in his community were carving on a smaller scale – items like halibut hooks, masks, and paddles – but totem pole carving had mostly disappeared. The village hired a Tlingit carver from outside when it wanted to carve the first new pole in recent memory. That was now more than two decades ago.
“I’m not a touchy feely guy, but when I wake up at four in the morning, I’m thinking of making something,” he says. “I need to be creating something. From the time I was a kid, I wanted to do this.”
The Klawock totem pole carving tradition was revived when the city, the school, the U.S. Forest Service, the Sealaska Corporation and the Klawock Heenya Corporation all worked together on creating totem poles for the community’s totem park. “For me, it’s important that this is passed down,” says Rowan. “The carving tradition was almost lost. We can’t lose it again. We put our kids to work doing this, so they have ownership in our traditions.”
I meet one of those students in a quiet shed, where she sits alone, painting the totem poles. Sydney Isaacs, a cheery college student attending the Institute for American Indian Arts in New Mexico, has been painting all the totem poles that have been carved this summer.
“This is a real privilege, a very high place to be,” she says. “I grew up knowing the important stuff of our community, stories about our ancestors and our traditions. And now I’m playing such a role in it.”
“We are Haida”
Back in Hydaburg, Tony Christianson says he had long noticed and even envied the work Rowan was doing in Klawock. Eight years ago, Christianson’s brother was killed in a logging accident. In his grief, he turned to carving a totem pole.
“That was the first pole raised in Hydaburg since 1938,” he says.
Christianson frequently mentions forces of nature: streams and oceans and deer and salmon. Strolling through Hydaburg, it’s apparent that he is actually a force of nature himself. Kids run up to him, calling him “uncle.” Community members stop to talk about plans for the stream assessment and salmon fishing.
He has been part of the Hydaburg tribe’s initiative to create a week-long culture camp, a celebration of Haida traditions including totem carving, canoe making, potlatches and wild food harvesting. And totem carving is flourishing.
“For years, the government made our traditions a source of shame and fear,” says Hagoo. “Today, we recognize that we need our traditions and our traditional foods to make our minds and bodies healthy again.”
Christianson sees the scientific stream assessment and restoration of traditions like totem pole carving as two parts of the same effort. “The environment is constantly changing. The community is always changing. We recognize that,” he says. “We need science to show us how to restore our streams. But we also need our traditional knowledge to restore our pride.”
Before we leave the carving shed, Hagoo shares several traditional songs, songs of loss and love and history. As he sings a song remembering his ancestors, tears stream down his face as the memories of loved ones come back. He sings another song to send their memories back. As he tells me the meanings of each of these songs, his eyes fill with tears again—this time with pride.
“This carving, this work that is happening here, is helping us heal,” says Hagoo. “Everyone should know who they are and where they come from and be proud of it. We want to hold up our heads and say ‘We are Haida.’”