Tsimshian-style totem tells Easter story

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2001

ANCHORAGE - The Rev. David Fison's notes for telling the Easter story this year are written on the side of a 17-foot-tall piece of cedar.

The Methodist pastor retired years ago but will return today to St. John United Methodist Church in Anchorage to give the Easter sermon. He won't rely on the Bible alone. This year's tale is told from a book of a different kind: a cedar totem pole carved by 78-year-old Fison.

For the past three years, Fison has been designing and carving a totem pole that tells the story of Jesus Christ being crucified on a cross and rising from the dead. The telling, however, takes a twist from the story most people know. Fison's Easter story is told through the ways of the Tsimshian, a Southeast Alaska tribe Fison preached to in the 1960s.

Forty years ago, Fison and his wife Aleen came to Alaska as Methodist missionaries. He preached at a Ketchikan church from 1961 to 1966. Near the end of that tenure, the nearby Tsimshian village of Metlakatla lost its pastor, and Fison flew in on Sundays for several months to fill in. Fison's interest in the tribe grew, and he studied its culture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

So when Fison decided to create his first totem almost 20 years later, he had no problem deciding whom to make it for. In 1988, he finished that 12-foot-tall pole, which was cut from yellow cedar and tells the Christmas story.

Several years ago, Fison attended a Methodist retreat. A woman asked him when he was going to make an Easter pole. Fison decided to follow through on her request.

This time, Fison chose a red cedar trunk from Ketchikan he estimates is 500 years old and weighs about 1,000 pounds. His son-in-law, who owned a semi truck in the area, loaded the trunk and brought it back to Anchorage via ferry.

Before touching the wood, Fison spent months reading Scripture, drawing patterns for the totem and creating small models. His nerves got the better of him.

He wanted to make sure he was carving the face of Jesus the way he wanted it. To lessen the chance of error, he rigged a device that projected the face onto the log. Fison followed the pattern until he had the confidence to carve his work by eye.

Fison's Easter pole stands 5 feet taller than his Christmas pole, now displayed in his living room. The Easter version is much more ornate, with carvings on the sides as well as the front.

Some of the carvings are easy to understand. Jesus is depicted by a bearded man's face. The apostles are pictured by 12 carved faces, six on each side of the totem. At the top is a stacked set of three hands signifying the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The carvings of the wolf and the raven might catch people by surprise because they aren't part of the traditional Easter story. The totem, Fison said, was created to tell the story to the Tsimshian in a way they would understand it. No grains grow in the rain forest, so Fison used smoked salmon to signify the bread of the Last Supper. There were no roosters to crow, so Fison carved a wolf that would howl instead. Instead of burying Jesus in a tomb, he created a cave. The raven is Fison's equivalent of the angel.

Fison said he understands creating such a pole to tell a religious story might not be accepted by some people. He notes that even the early Christian missionaries who spent time with tribes like the Tsimshian thought totems were pagan idols that had to be destroyed.

But he sees the totems differently. They were the tribe's closest approximation to books. They were outlines for tales that would be told by future generations.

"There's no reason why you can't use things that were traditionally Native in a Christian way," he said.

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