Vigor Alaska’s Ketchikan shipyard during the city’s 40th annual Blueberry Arts Festival will raise a 12-foot totem pole indicative of the kind of company it aims to be.
“As we build an Alaskan workforce here in Ketchikan… we want to essentially be open to diversity and through diversity,” said Director of Shipyard Development Doug Ward.
They also hope the pole, created by carver Jon Rowan of Klawock, is the start of a change to how people frequently think about shipyards, said Vigor Alaska General Manager Mike Pearson.
“There’s a place for art and color in a shipyard. We’re moving away from a 19th and 20th century notion that people who do industrial work are part of the machine,” Pearson said. “They’re not part of a machine. They’re human beings with a heart, and a soul, and a mind.”
Recognizing “the brilliance of human beings,” he said, naturally leads to a place that values its people — and, in Ketchikan, it naturally led to the idea of a totem pole.
“This is the totem pole capital of the world,” he said. “The art of the Native people here is so powerful. Not only is it powerful and expressive of art, but really, about the stories that are told that give people strength.”
The pole will be elevated via a mound and a base so that its top will rise about 18 feet from the ground. Its main figures, starting at the bottom, are an “aunty” figure, an eagle, a strongman, and a raven.
At its base will be a cedar box with 12 panels, each created by a different Vigor business unit, said project assistant Kristin Buchanan.
“They (the panels) are built by Vigor craftsmen. They reflect the artistry of shipbuilding,” Ward said.
Buchanan, who is a member of the Taant’a Kwaan, will be dancing at the pole raising, along with dancers from nine dance groups composed of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian members, she said.
Pearson began working towards a totem pole by looking at a study asking employees what a shipyard should look and feel like.
“As we moved away from checklists like ‘You should have a clean workspace, a painted building, no broken windows,’ most people really wanted to talk about things that really were even spiritual in nature,” Pearson said. “People wanted to talk about things that meant something to them really deep in their heart about work, and what they wanted work to mean.”
Two of the things that stood out to him, he said, were the idea of respect, and the importance of honoring Native Americans and Native Alaskans.
They were also cognizant, Pearson said, of the need to “earn” the totem pole. The company has started workforce training programs, one of which helps Native Alaskan youth “gain certifications to come into the workforce,” Pearson said.
Shipyard worker Norm Skan spoke with people in Ketchikan’s Native community and “created a framework that Jon Rowan filled in,” Pearson said.
The aunty figure is “one thing that, especially, Doug and I have talked about,” Pearson said. “We are really reaching out to women. (We’re asking ourselves,) do we understand the pressures of women in the workforce, and are we addressing it.”
The strongman, said a description of the pole, represents the hard work and training of the company’s work force. The eagle and the raven are there to represent both moieties and as love birds, since “Vigor is all about love and respect.”
The pole, and its panels, will be located at the front entrance to the shipyard, Ward said.
Once the pole is up, the shipyard won’t be done, Pearson said. One photographer has taken black and white portraits of people working in all Vigor’s locations, and they plan to display them.
“We’re about ships, yes, but we’re also really about the people that work there,” Pearson said.
They’re also reaching out to local artists in hopes of eventually hosting more art projects and green spaces.
The pole, Pearson said, is “really a signpost that says ‘this is the way to a new story about how people live and work in the 21st century.”
The pole-raising will be Saturday, Aug. 1 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Ketchikan Shipyard. Afterwards, the company is hosting a 6 p.m. celebration at the Ted Ferry Civic Center.
• Contact CCW staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.