Young brothers begin work on downtown totem pole

Haida carvers Joe and TJ Young arrived in Juneau Monday to begin work on the first of two totem poles for Juneau’s Gajaa Hit building on Willoughby Avenue. The two poles will replace originals currently on site at Gajaa Hit erected in 1977 to honor the Raven and Eagle clans of the Aak’w Kwáan Tlingit.


For the next several months, the Young brothers will work on the Raven pole at the Sealaska building downtown, offering an opportunity for locals to observe two of the state’s most highly regarded young carvers at work, while witnessing the gradual emergence of a major art piece for Alaska’s capital city.

More broadly, the project highlights the continued vitality of totem poles as an artform — one that originated not too far from where the Youngs grew up, according to most art historians — and the historic cultural significance of the Indian Village neighborhood to the Tlingit community.

The brothers said they have been working closely with local elders and others to finalize the poles’ designs before they begin work.

“We just want them to be happy with it. This is their territory, we respect them, and as long as they’re happy, we’re happy,” TJ Young said. “We’ll try to make them proud of it.”

The designs of the new poles will be based on the originals, carved by Tommy Jimmie, Ed Kunz Jr, Ed Kunz Sr. and William Smith. The Raven pole will be carved this fall and the Eagle this spring. The Youngs will also paint a new house screen for the wall that stands between the poles.

Kunz Jr., who lives near Gajaa Hit, is one of the elders the Youngs have been talking to since they got to town. Kunz, a Raven of the L’uknax.ádi (Coho) Clan, will represent the Raven moiety throughout the carving process, and the Eagle representative will be Chris Coronell, Eagle of the Yanyeidí (Wolf) Clan. Both men’s ties to the Indian Village neighborhood near the site extend back generations.

Gajaa Hit, located next to Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, stands on land that was once waterfront property, and traditionally the area was used as a summer fish camp by the Auk Tlingit. In spite of the fact that the waterfront was eventually filled in with rock beginning in the 1930s, cutting off water access, the area has remained a consistent base for the Tlingit community. The Auke Tribe Building was constructed in the 1970s as a community center, and in 2000, Tlingit elder and longtime neighborhood resident Cecilia Kunz (carver Ed Kunz’ mother) renamed it Gajaa Hit, or “safe place to land.”

The totem pole replacement project is a joint effort organized by Sealaska Heritage Institute in partnership with the Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority, which owns the Gajaa Hít building, and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, which also provided a grant for the creation of the house screen.The pole carving is being funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant. The Youngs were the unanimous choice of an SHI artist committee and a technical committee, according to SHI.

Many in Juneau will remember the Young brothers from their last local project – and the most recent totem raising in town -- the Eagle pole out at UAS in 2009, the same year as Tlingit carver Wayne Price’s Haa Dachxana’i Yan Kahidi (Our Children’s House) was raised in the Thunder Mountain High School Commons.

Other projects the brothers have completed together include the Yaadaas Crest Pole at Sitka National Historical Park and several poles in Hydaburg. The pair were also selected to carve a house post for the Southeast section of the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage in 2010, a high profile project that also included Tlingit carver Israel Shotridge and Tsimshian carver David Boxley.

The artists said the design of the Gajaa Hit poles will be traditional, rather than reflective of their personal style.

“It’s just such a beautiful bold form, we really don’t want to mess with it,” TJ said of the traditional designs. “Maybe in 30 years we’ll lean towards that but for now we’re just going to try to keep it traditional and at the same time try to challenge the viewer.”

Joe Young said balancing personal style while remaining true to tradition is one of the challenges of the form.

“It’s kind of a cool time in art, where everybody is tweaking their own style, finding their own style, and making it still stay under the Tlingit or Haida or Tsimshian guidelines,” Joe said.

Commissioning Haida artists to carve a Tlingit pole is not unusual, Joe said. Traditionally, there were active trade routes up and down the Pacific Northwest coast, and the Haidas were often asked to provide canoes and totems for the Tlingits and others due to the abundance and proximity of red cedar in Haida territory, and their corresponding expertise with that material.

Haida and Tlingit carving styles are not the same, but they are similar. The Young brothers can tell if a pole is Tlingit or Haida in origin -- and even who the artist is -- but for many viewers these differences can be hard to spot.

According to art historians and Northwest Coast scholars, including Aldona Jonaitis, director emerita of the University of Alaska Museum of the North, totem poles likely developed right in the Youngs’ backyard. Historical photographs and other evidence suggests Haida Gwaii as a likely birthplace, or the Queen Charlotte Islands, located directly to the south of Prince of Wales Island, where the Young brothers grew up. From there, totem poles spread to other parts of the Pacific Northwest, eventually -- and inaccurately -- becoming an iconic symbol of Native American culture.

Though this art form has been reenergized over the past 50-75 years, totem pole projects are significant and relatively uncommon, so the Youngs have sought out every opportunity to improve their skills.

“It’s not like there’s a pole going up every week,” Joe said. “We learned where we could, anywhere we could, with local artists, whether they were Tlingit, Tsimshian or Haida. We’ve had to learn as we go. And we’re still learning, of course, and still will be for a long time.”

Recently, TJ has been learning from well-known Haida carver Robert Davidson in Vancouver, an artist TJ said both brothers have looked up to their whole lives. Joe said he hopes to learn from TJ’s experiences with Davidson second hand, adding that at this point TJ has more experience in carving than he does.

“Before we were neck-in-neck because we worked on a lot of the same projects,” Joe said. “But he’s been working with one of the masters in Vancouver. And I think he has one more pole on me. He did a big project without me back home. So he’s got a little more experience than me,” Joe said.

Asked if this meant TJ would be taking the lead on their current project, TJ joked, “Yeah, I’ll point and he’ll run around.”

TJ, who at 32 is two years younger than his brother, said a little sibling rivalry is to be expected, but it’s of the positive variety.

“We like to play basketball and play sports. We’re pretty competitive at that. We’re competitive on the pole too, but it’s a happy competitive. We’re trying to push each other, is all.”

Raised in Hydaburg, the brothers began carving as boys, under the influence of their grandfather, Claude Morrison, a respected Haida elder who died in 2011 at age 100.

Joe said during the first 10 years of their artistic training they focused on drawing to get the basics of design down before moving on to carving. Going into carving without that foundation isn’t a great idea, he said.

“It’s like skipping a step,” Joe said.

“Like running before you walk,” TJ added.

“Or learning to drive a car before you learn to read the signs,” Joe continued. “Some people try to do that but it shows in their work that it’s not exactly what it should be.”

Drawing is something they still do, TJ said, as are painting and jewelry making, all of which helps fine-tune their carving skills.

“We stay busy with the jewelry and what that does is help sharpen up your design skills. We’re never taking breaks. We live it now,” TJ said.

TJ and Joe Young aren’t the only family members of their generation who have immersed themselves in Haida traditions. Their brother, Ben Young, is very active in Haida language revitalization, and a fourth brother, Claude, is a fisherman who often helps out on carving projects -- and may help out on the current totem project

In Juneau, the brothers also have plenty of connections and support, such as their childhood friend Josh Yates, who is also an artist.

The first step, which they were working on on Tuesday, was ripping the entire length of the log, a job that would have been much easier if they’d had Joe’s chainsaw, That important tool raised eyebrows at the Anchorage Airport, despite earlier assurances that Joe could check it, provided that it had been drained of fluid. In fact, airline employees pulled him off the plane, he said, and he had to catch a later flight.

“That was one of our first obstacles, tracking down a decent sized saw,” TJ said.

The next step after cutting the long lengthwise, is to hollow the segment out a bit before transporting it from Gajaa Hit to the Sealaska building. They should be starting to carve early next week.

As for carrying out their work in public, the brothers said they enjoy the interactions -- for the most part. And if they get tired of answering the same questions they may enlist Yates to run interference. Or maybe post a sign with the answers to the top three:

Yes, it’s cedar.

It should take about six months.

The nearest bathroom is over there.


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