Resurrecting the Yax té totem

Local groups, experts work together to bring an aging totem pole back to life

Many Native Alaskans believe that totem poles have a spirit like all living things. They are meant to live and, over time, they are intended to “die” as the wood, the carvings return to the land.


Many also believe the totems serve great historical significance — they mark the passing of an influential elder, the completion of a new lodge or, as is the case of the Yax té (Big Dipper) totem, a place where a strong tribe flourished.

But instead of standing tall, the totem has been in storage, under a blue tarp at the U.S. Forest Service offices on Back Loop Road. Today, steps are being taken to refurbish the pole, to preserve it for many years to come. Who will do the refurbishing has yet to be determined said Myra Gilliam, an archaeologist on the Juneau Ranger District, but recommendations on how will be available this week thanks to a assessment completed a few weeks ago by expert Native carver and artist Tommy Joseph of Sitka.

Up until roughly two years ago, the Yax té pole overlooked the Auke Recreation Area. It was originally carved in 1941 by Frank St. Clair, a Tlingit from Hoonah, with the help of two other men serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps. That same year, the pole was erected by the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps under the direction of Linn Forrest, who worked as a landscape architect. Forrest had a hand in designing the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, for example, and he also oversaw earlier totem pole restoration work at the Sitka National Historical Park in 1939. The Auke Tribe, according to historical documents, were Tlingit people and among the first to settle in the Juneau area.

The U.S. Forest Service took down the totem in 2010 citing concern for its structural integrity. The base of the pole was originally rooted in the earth and, as a result, suffered the effects of annual heavy rainfall, insect infestation, natural decomposition and damage by arsonists and persistent woodpeckers.

It’s been in storage ever since.

But a few weeks ago the tarp was pulled back and the pole examined by Joseph.

Now, officials with the USFS are seeking to refurbish the pole, to bring it back to life, so to speak, in an effort to honor the historical significance of the pole itself and the place where it stood for nearly 70 years.

Gilliam said Joseph’s preliminary recommendation was encouraging — the totem was a good candidate for restoration work.

“The preliminary word is that it’s a go — it can be refurbished and it can be re-erected. So, that was great news for us,” she said.

His final report is due today, but he offered a initial report while on site. A few issues will need addressing, he said.

“He’s going to address the painting issue — what colors to use, for example — perhaps not the current colors,” she said. “He was not happy with the teal and the yellow used, for instance. They were not the ‘traditional’ colors he likes to see. He was good with the black and the red and the teal (it was close, but not quite). The white and the yellow, he was not fond of. I guess he’s going make some recommendations on that.”

Typically, Gilliam said, the eyes of Native carvings are not painted white, for example. She said Joseph will likely recommend that the “eyeball be enhanced through the carving to intensify the eyeball characteristics, rather than the color.”

The pole features six carved bird faces and is topped by a raven and supported at the bottom by the motif of a Tlingit princess.

“They will address the raven,” Gilliam said, “which tops the pole.”

At one point, she said, it was covered with a cap — but other portions of the raven’s wings were not.

“The cap was nailed on and those nails are completely rusted, which will contribute to future degradation of the wood,” she said. “So he’s recommending the replacement of that capping on the top.”

She said Joseph also recommended maintenance treatments, such as annual applications of Bora-Care, a salt–like liquid, which protects the wood against insect infestation; it also acts as a water repellant.

“He’s also recommending some sort of structural support behind the pole when it is resurrected,” Gilliam said.

As for the woodpecker holes, those will be filled with micro-balloons that will fill the cavities entirely, leaving no room for moisture to weasel in and create further damage.

But perhaps the most important of all recommendations, as far as preservation goes, is that the pole not be reinstalled in the ground.

“By installing it above ground, it will prevent moisture from wicking up through the wood and creating a enticing habitat for critters,” Gilliam said.

The report is just one more step in a long process said District Ranger Marti Marshall.

“First, we need to find the funding and a location to restore it,” she said.

Then, there’s the issue of exactly where to reinstall the pole.

“There are some safety issues associated with where it was originally installed,” Marshall said. “We’ve talked about enhancing (the original) site and moving it back into the forest a bit with a little trail leading to it. Or, should we put it down near the gardens? Everybody’s got ideas.”

The USFS plans to work closely with the Douglas Indian Association as they move forward.

In the end, Gilliam said, “we just want this pole to be able to stand for at least another 50 years, which would be a lovely goal.”


• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at

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