WASHINGTON — For hundreds of years, a red cedar tree grew tall and straight in a forest in British Columbia. Beginning last fall, under the hands of Tsimshian carver David Boxley and his son, it was transformed into an honored cultural artifact — a totem pole. On Saturday, thousands of miles from its point of origin, it stood tall once again, this time as part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
The pole, called “The Eagle and the Young Chief,” was formally unveiled on Saturday, and now stands in a prominent position in the Potomac Atrium at the entryway of the museum.
At the dedication ceremony, Metlakatla-born Boxley, 59, and his son, 30, spoke of their joy and pride on that day — for their family and for their tribe.
“My sons and I were proud to have made the pole, but we know it was a big day not just for us but for all of our people,” Boxley said a few days after the event. “The totem pole will greet people visiting the NMAI for years to come, and they with see that the Tsimshian people from the Northwest coast are a tribe that is alive and well and proud.”
A large crowd gathered to watch the dedication in the circular, soaring space in the entryway of the museum, filling the staircases and balconies around the room as well. In addition to getting their first glimpse of the striking 22-foot pole, the audience watched a performance by Boxley’s dance group, the Git-Hoan (people of the salmon) dancers, and listened to the artist talk about his work and Tsimshian culture.
While the dancers performed, the Boxleys drummed and sang Tsimshian songs, some traditional, some newly written. Dressed in regalia, the dancers wore magnificent carved masks, most of which had been carved by the Boxleys. One masks, a killer whale, had moveable fins on the side that the dancer manipulated as he moved around the room.
Boxley said three dances were used during the official unveiling, in addition to many others performed over the two day celebration. The first of the three dances was the chief’s peace dance, “an old dance in which down floats from the dancers’ headdresses as a sign of peace,” he said. The second was a carvers’ dance, which signaled the end of the work and transference of ownership to the museum. And the third was a mask dance that illustrated the story told in the totem.
Boxley said he chose the story, called “The Eagle and the Young Chief,” because of its uplifting message.
“Because this totem pole was such an honor for me, my family and my tribe, I wanted to present a story that would be a positive uplifting one,” he said. “The story of ‘The Eagle and the Young Chief.’ The moral being, one good turn deserves another.”
The story describes a young Tsimshian man who finds an eagle tangled in a fishing net on the beach and releases it back into the sky. Many years later the young man has become chief of his village. His people are hungry and he doesn’t know what to do. Then from out of the sky a salmon lands at his feet — dropped by the same eagle he once helped. Over the following days the eagle brings more food to the village, saving them from starvation and helping them back to full strength.
The pole shows an eagle at the top, then a row of villagers in the middle, and, at the base, a man holding a salmon. Part of the pole is painted in orange-red, blue and black, some is left unpainted.
Boxley began working on the pole last October, after receiving the raw red cedar log at his home in Kingston, Wash. At that point most of the bark was still intact and it measured more than 40 feet, Boxley said; he cut it down to 22 feet.
He carved part of it in Kingston before shipping it to Washington, D.C. where he has been working on it for the past several months at the museum. As he worked, people back home were able to watch via webcam.
“One of the best parts of the whole project, especially the portion in Washington D.C. through to the actual unveiling was that there was a real-time webcam on and the people on the West Coast, and in my village, Metlakatla, were watching,” Boxley said. “We received many Facebook (messages) and texts from the children in the elementary school. They were proud and excited and asked us to wave to them!”
There were also some from the West Coast who traveled to D.C. to see the unveiling; Boxley greeted visitors from Washington state and Alaska during opening remarks on Saturday.
The National Museum of the American Indian was established by an act of Congress in 1989, and consists of three separate sites: the museum itself, a cultural resource center in Suitland, Md., and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. The museum, located in front of the U.S. Capitol Building, opened in 2004 and is one of 18 Smithsonian museums. Boxley’s pole is the first Tsimshian work to be displayed there.
Boxley was raised by his grandparents, from whom he learned traditional Tsimshian ways including the language. He began drawing in about third grade, moving to oil painting in college, where he minored in art. He began carving just as a hobby in the mid-1970s, while working as a teacher and basketball coach, but found few who could help him learn the artform. So, determined to learn, he began visiting museums and libraries, studying what his ancestors had done and trying it out himself when he got home. In the mid-80s, he left his teaching job to become a full-time artist.
Over the past few decades, the once-scarce art has been seeing a resurgence — as Boxley’s own family makes clear. His son David has helped on 18 poles (out of about 70 the elder Boxley has completed) and has made three on his own, including one for his grandmother who died this past fall. Boxley said his son’s interest began at a very young age.
“I helped him with his first mask when he was six, and he began to seriously produce regular pieces in his early teens,” he said. David eventually went on to study art at the Cornish College of Arts in seattle. Another son, Zach, is also a carver.
In addition to becoming involved in traditional art and in helping continue it through his family, Boxley has also taken on the role of a culture bearer -- in helping to revitalize the potlatch traditions in Seattle and in Metlakatla, in continuing to speak his language, and in writing and dancing songs with the Git-Hoan dancers (whom Juneauites can catch at Celebration).
When asked if he had any words for young artists, or for those back home in Metlakatla, Boxley said, “To young carvers, I would ask that they seriously look at the beautiful old examples of our art in the NMAI and many other museums around the country and other parts of the world. Modern technology, computers, and websites make this easier, as museums put their collections online now.
“To the people in my village, we are proud to represent our culture and we are proud to be Tsimshians from Metlakatla.”
• Contact arts editor Amy Fletcher at email@example.com.