Woman honored with totem

Kake residents raise totem to show appreciation for longtime teacher

Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Mona Catherine Jackson has lived in Massett, British Columbia, Hydaburg, Sitka and Ashville, Tenn.

But Kake, where she first taught after earning her teaching degree, is her home.

"I really enjoyed staying here all my life," Jackson said in a phone interview this week. "This is my first place to be at home."

On Feb. 8, friends and family in Kake thanked the 90-year-old former teacher for her devotion to the village with the raising of a Hummingbird Raven totem pole carved in her honor.

"The totem pole is the best one I ever saw yet," she said. "It's beautiful. I think it's got my face on it, too."

Jackson was born into a Haida family in Massett, B.C., in 1913 and moved to Hydaburg, on Prince of Wales Island, in 1923. She attended the Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka until 1935 and was a student at the Ashville Normal School for Teachers in Ashville, N.C., until 1939.

Upon graduating from college, she took a job teaching school in Kake, about 90 miles south of Juneau.

She married Thomas L. Jackson Sr., a Tlingit man from Kake who attended the Sheldon Jackson School the same years she did. She didn't know him, though, until she moved to Kake.

"He always had so many girls around him when we were in school," Jackson said.

The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1990 with a totem raised in their honor.

"My whole life I was in boarding schools, so I hardly knew the culture, the people," Mona Jackson said. "I learned that from my husband here. Tlingit culture is almost the same as Haida, so he taught me a lot of things that I didn't know. He was a great man."

The couple had 12 sons, four of whom were adopted, and seven daughters, including four adopted daughters. Mona Jackson now has 41 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild on the way - 90 people in her immediate family.

But her family extends beyond her offspring. Mona taught school for 30 years in Kake and retired in 1975. She helped found the Kake Head Start Program in 1965, and hundreds of former students remember her teaching.

"The first age group that went through her teaching here in Kake are now 70," said Della Cheney, one of Jackson's daughters. "She's been here for a long time."

Jackson said she has received many gifts in her life.

"My favorite gift was teaching children and singing," she said. "I've been in choir all my life in churches. I often sing to my daughter in Haida here."

Jackson can sing multiple verses of the Christian hymn "This is the Day That the Lord Has Made," and, though she said her voice is not as strong as it once was it still comes clear through a phone line.

"We've been practicing. she's teaching me a lot," said Cheney. "Once a teacher, always a teacher, I think."

The Alaska Native Education Association honored Jackson as Parent of the Year in 1999. On Dec. 8, 2002, she was honored and received the Educator of the Year for Southeast Alaska by the First Alaskans Institute at its annual educators conference in Anchorage.

Daniel Jackson, son of Mona's oldest son Thomas L. Jackson Jr., drew the hummingbird raven design and carved the red cedar pole under the supervision of master carver Norman Jackson. He is a carving apprentice under a state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation program and a Tlingit-Haida Central Council training program.

"It was a challenge to do," Norman Jackson said. "We'd never seen a hummingbird totem before ... so we just carved from our two-dimensional design."

The totem also was unique in that it was a full totem raised for a living person.

"They're usually done as a memorial pole, for somebody that died, or you do one to tell a story of somebody that had died, you know," Norman Jackson said. "But one that's never been done before is somebody that's still living, and a woman besides.

"... A lot of people brought up, 'Well, it isn't traditional.' I just answered that with, 'Let me know when tradition died and where it stopped, and that way I'll know where to stop this traditional carving.' But as far as I'm concerned, tradition is ongoing."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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