Chief Shakes restoration project progresses to roof

Strong Man totem, from the Linn A. Forrest collection.

The Chief Shakes Tribal House restoration project in Wrangell is more than halfway to completion, thanks in part to clear skies and a hard-working adze team.


“If I had to put a number on the total project, I’d say we’re about 65 percent done,” said Project Manager Todd White. “We expected to salvage about 30 percent of the existing Tribal House, but that number turned out to be closer to 7 percent, creating additional work. But even with the additions, we’re still on-time for the 2013 re-dedication.”

The Shakes Island tribal house was completed in 1940, as a collaboration between the CCC, the Forest Service and the local Tlingit tribe. Built on the site historically occupied by Chief Shakes’ lineage, it is still used today for Tlingit ceremonies and for storing prized clan artwork — at.óow — of the Stikine Tlingits. Except for minor repairs, no major reconstruction has taken place to the structure since it was built.

The restoration process has involved replacing timbers, building a new roof, installing a new electrical system, and replacing the original totem poles at the site.

Because the tribal house is listed on the National Historic register, the replacement timbers must be hand adzed, a project that is being overseen by local carvers.

As of last week, the east half of the roof was nearly complete. The old roof, put together in 1939, consisted of only cedar planks and shakes. The new roof is being built with a Water Shield rubber membrane between the cedar planks and shakes in order to avoid the moisture issues faced by the previous structure.

“It’s just awesome to see it all coming together,” White said. “The project has been the most challenging I’ve ever taken on, but also the most rewarding. It’s great to come to work and see everyone on the job really enjoying and caring about what we’re trying to do here.”

White said he’s aiming to have the Tribal House finishing work wrapped up by the first of the year.

The tribal house is owned and operated by the Wrangell Cooperative Association, the federally recognized tribe of the Stikine River region. Of the 2,000 residents of Wrangell, approximately 800 are tribal members.

WCA President Ernie Christian said he has been impressed with the recent progress.

“(T)o see the crew staining the exterior walls and progressing on the roof is amazing,” Christian said. “There are some beautiful pieces of wood in there, and the look and smell the of adzed cedar is phenomenal. The adzers have done some impressive work.”

He also expressed his gratitude to Sealaska for their donations of cedar logs, most recently for the totem replication part of the project.

“Once again, Sealaska has come through with the logs we need and we thank them as they have played a big part in the Shakes Island renovation.”

Sealaska donated 12 cedar logs earlier in the process, which were allocated by Sealaska Timber Corp, finished on Prince of Wales Island and shipped to Wrangell, where they were adzed in the carving shed used to replace the largest pieces of the Tribal house, the corner posts and sill beams. Three additional red cedar logs were recently donated and will be used to replicate three totems — Undersea Bear, Strong Man and Bear Up the Mountain. These poles have crossed the first bridge to being re-carved and re-seated on Chief Shakes Island.

“It feels great to know the restoration is going smoothly and we’re on our way to getting the totems back into the ground,” Christian said.

In October 2011, Master Carver Steve Brown conducted an assessment of the orignal totems, concluding that the three poles were in dire need of a complete re-carve.

The original Bear Up the Mountain totem has been taken down and sits in two parts on Chief Shakes Island behind the Tribal House. The bear portion will be saved, but the 17’ mountain cannot be salvaged. The Strong Man and Undersea Bear, the other two totems in need of complete replication, are currently being stored by the City of Wrangell.

The Wrangell Cooperative Association is currently looking for volunteers to help with the re-dedication ceremony, which will take place in May 3 and 4, 2013. Committee members and volunteers from all communities are needed to help celebrate the re-opening of the National Historic Site. Volunteers are currently gathering and preparing traditional foods and volunteers are need to gather berries and smoke fish. Other jobs include volunteers to help organize housing, transportation, advertising, fundraising, dancing, gift-giving and other needs. Contact the WCA via phone (907.874.4304), or email to find out more.

For updates on the re-dedication, visit the Shakes Island Re-dedication Blog at or visit

• This information is based on a press release by Aaron Angerman of the Chief Shakes Island Project.


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