Haida carvers Joe and TJ Young have nearly finished carving the first of two totem poles that will replace existing poles at the Gajaa Hit building on Willoughby Avenue in downtown Juneau.
Since late August, the carvers, who are brothers, have been working on the pole in a tent behind Gajaa Hit, transforming it from a shaggy, 7,000-pound red cedar log into a finely detailed work of art, one that honors the Raven clans of the Aak’w Kwáan Tlingit. Work on the second pole, honoring the Eagle clans, will begin in March.
The project was organized by Sealaska Heritage Institute, the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council and the building’s owner, the Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority.
The Youngs, who grew up in Hydaburg, will be flying back to Anchorage on Saturday. When they come back to Juneau this spring to work on the Eagle pole, they will also be designing a new screen for the site that will stand between the two poles. All three works will then be painted before they are installed sometime in late June.
The original 26-foot poles, carved by Tommy Jimmie, Ed Kunz Jr., Ed Kunz Sr. and William Smith, are being removed due to concerns about their structural integrity. Plans for the old poles have not yet been finalized.
The Youngs’ Raven pole is not a replica of the 1977 pole but shares some of the same figures, including crests of the L’eeneidí (Dog Salmon) clan.
“They’re actually quite a bit different,” TJ Young said. “A lot of the same stories, and same figures, just rearranged a little differently. And we put our touch on each one.”
The Youngs said their experience in Juneau has been pleasant, brightened by deliveries of pie and other baked goods and a steady stream of curious visitors, as well as the support and encouragement of the community.
“Every day we’d get a different person in here,” TJ Young said. “It’s been good to interact with all the visitors, to educate them and get some stories ourselves. We felt right at home.”
The Gajaa Hit building, originally called the Auke Tribe Building, was constructed in the 1970s as a community center, highlighting the area’s traditional importance as a summer camp for the Aak’w Kwáan Tlingit. In 2000, it was renamed Gajaa Hit, or “safe place to land,” by Tlingit elder and longtime neighborhood resident Cecilia Kunz.
Carving of the poles is being funded through a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant.
For more information on this project, visit juneauempire.com/art/2013-08-29/young-brothers-begin-work-downtown-totem-pole.