A raven and a bear for Pelican

Master carver teaches high school students to carve Native totem poles

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2004

In Pelican, there's not much for the community's five high school students to do except to cruise the boardwalk or play on computers, several of the students said.

So in the fall of 2002, Native carver Stan Marsden, with the support of community members, began visiting the fishing village located about 100 miles west of Juneau. As he has done in several villages in Southeast Alaska, Marsden taught the high school students and other community members to carve traditional Native totem poles.

"We're teaching a culture," Marsden said. "Working together on this, mostly it brings people together, the whole community."

Saturday, Marsden returned to Pelican to see the two poles, one bear and one raven, raised in the town. He was joined by about 60 other guests to Pelican, who took a boat from Juneau and Hoonah Saturday morning.

"I'm so glad to see you all here," Marsden told the crowd of about 60 at the rainy totem raising. "Right now Pelican needs your help, needs your support."

Pelican was a booming fishing village in the 1950s through the early 1990s. Falling fish prices lead to a decline in the town's sole industry, and February's closing of the town's cold storage plant, owned by Kake Tribal Corp., was a major economic blow for residents.

Marsden chose to have the students carve a raven pole because the raven takes care of itself and remains independent, Marsden told the crowd.

He also had the students carve a bear holding a halibut to represent the town's main economic activity.

Frederick Phillips, 18, a senior at the Pelican high school, said he was happy to have learned how to carve, although participation was mandatory.

"I liked it," he said. "It gave us something to do at night."

Adults helped in the carving. Tom Whitmarsh, a 28-year resident of the town, said that carving was a way for kids to be a part of the community.

"We get together a number of times over the year," he said. But often the adults participate more than the children, wearing Halloween costumes and creating Easter bonnets.

"This was a chance for the kids to get involved," he said.

Though Pelican is not a Native village and only about 25 percent of its residents are Alaska Native, carving a totem pole is a cultural experience for the whole community, said Harman Davis, clan leader of the Coho people in Sitka. He traveled to Pelican for the ceremony.

"I really admire what these people are doing for such a small community," Davis said. "They really put their hearts into it. I want them to know that the Tlingit people are still here and they will be here for a long, long time."

Wanda Culp and Ernestine Hanlon of Hoonah traveled to the pole raising to be a witness and support for the cultural side of Hoonah, the women said.

"This is Raven country," said Culp. "This is all part of Hoonah traditional use area."

Though Hoonah and Pelican are located on the same island, neither Culp or Hanlon had visited the town since the mid-1980s. They enjoyed the ceremony, seeing old friends and helping Pelican celebrate.

"It was so appropriate," Hanlon said.

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