Master carver dies at 83

Wallace's Native carvings appear in museums, collections across the country

Posted: Friday, May 28, 2004

Tlingit master carver and fisherman Amos Wallace was remembered by family and friends Thursday as a gentle and generous father, a devout Orthodox Christian, an inventive artist and idea man and a champion of Native rights through his work with the Alaska Native Brotherhood.

Wallace, 83, was pronounced dead at approximately 1 a.m. Thursday morning at Bartlett Regional Hospital. He broke his hip in January and was staying at Wildflower Court since then.

"Amos was one of the artists that was really doing art through the middle of the 20th century and keeping Tlingit art alive to the present day," said Steve Henrikson, a curator at the Alaska State Museum. "There really weren't that many people doing the kind of work he was doing. I think he deserves a lot of credit for preserving the living link between the old culture and the contemporary culture."

Wallace's Tlingit name was Jeet Yaaw Dustaa of the Duk dein taan clan of the Sockeye house of Glacier Bay and Hoonah by way of Lituya Bay.

"His last words were 'Take care of mama,'" said his son, Brian Wallace, a Juneau Empire photographer. He visited with his father shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday evening.

"Mama" is Dorothy Wallace, Amos' wife of 44 years.

A memorial service will be held for Wallace at 7 p.m. Monday, May 31, at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. Well-wishers can send flowers to ANB Hall. Wallace was a member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood since he was a young man and he served three times as the group's president. He held every office with the ANB. His final title was grand president emeritus.

"His main thing was that he fought for civil rights his entire life through the ANB Hall," Brian Wallace said.

Longtime friend Richard Stitt, the Tlingit and Haida self-governance coordinator and a member of the ANB Grand Camp executive committee, met Wallace soon after moving to Juneau from Anchorage in 1964. Wallace was the local ANB camp president

"He was easy to get along with and a wonderful fellow," Stitt said. "He was a real dedicated ANB member and always worked strenuously for the organization. From his work and his carving and such, he certainly developed a great reputation that extended quite far."

A funeral service will be held for Wallace at 1 or 2 p.m. Tuesday, June 1, at the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. The exact time will be announced soon.

Wallace was a lifetime member of the church, where he was a reader, the church council president, the treasurer, the choir director and a caretaker of the building.

Nora and Richard Dauenhauer lived in the house next door to Wallace on North Douglas Highway for 25 years. Richard and Wallace were both readers at the church.

"He was one of the real movers and shakers, and he just kept the place going," Richard Dauenhauer said. "He had a very quiet tenor voice. He did all kinds of carpentry. I have pictures of him climbing around the rafters and climbing around the roof with a paintbrush. And to the very end, he was still there when he could make it."

"We're going to miss him," Nora Dauenhauer said. "He was very nice, very laid back and gentle, soft spoken."

Wallace is also survived by a sister, Betty Govina of Juneau; four sons, Brian, Roger Jack of Seattle, Kenny Jack of Cordova, Darrell Jack of Juneau; three daughters, Beverly Brisco of Wichita Falls, Texas, and Marjorie Peters of Anchorage; a daughter from a previous marriage, Anna Beaver of Washington, D.C.; many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and numerous cousins and other relatives.

Three daughters, Lois Jack, Kathleen Jack and Merle Jack, died previously.

"He was talking about going fishing and going home earlier this week," Brian Wallace said. "You name the fishing, he did it."

Wallace was born to Anna and Frank Thomas at the government hospital in Juneau on Nov. 28, 1920. His family lived in Hoonah and they returned there after his birth. They moved to Juneau in 1926.

Wallace had two sisters who died at a very young age. He also had an older brother, Lincoln. His father died when he was a young boy. Years later, his mother remarried to Frank Wallace.

Wallace was 7 when Lincoln taught him to carve. They sharpened their own tools out of steel and carved small totems. Amos and Lincoln attended the equivalent of grade school at the Pius X Mission, a Catholic school in Skagway. They went to the Wrangell Institute boarding school in Wrangell.

Dauenhauer's cousin, Horace Marks, studied and carved with Wallace at Wrangell.

"When (Wallace) went to school he didn't lose his ability to speak Tlingit," Dauenhauer said.

Wallace joined the U.S. Army early in 1942, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and was shipped to the Aleutians. He was serving as a mate on a boat in Dutch Harbor one night when he was swept overboard.

"He was just swimming in this raging torrent in Dutch Harbor during the winter storm, and someone noticed that he wasn't on the boat," Brian Wallace said. "And they did a big U-turn on the boat and lo and behold they came right up to him. They said he was in the water for 15 minutes. This guy, he doesn't remember a thing about him except he was a big Swede, grabbed a pole and stuck it down there and said something like, 'You only have one shot of this. Grab hold of this or we're going to lose you.' He grabbed the pole so hard they had to saw it off. He had extreme hypothermia that put him in the hospital for six months."

After the war, Wallace returned to Juneau. He and Lincoln made small poles - 6 to 8 inches or 10 to 12 - and eventually traveled to Seattle to try to sell their work to shopkeepers. They met one who was particularly impressed and spent a year in Seattle, then 11 years in Portland, Ore., where they carved for a wholesaler.

Wallace traveled to Southeast to fish in the summer of 1958. He heard that a department store executive in Brooklyn wanted a totem pole carved in the store for eventual display in the Brooklyn Children's Museum. He carved a 14-foot pole with a Northwest Coast-designed Statue of Liberty at the top. That summer, Jack Parr interviewed him on "The Tonight Show." The New York Daily News and Herald Tribune profiled his work.

"I was the first national television Tlingit star," Wallace told the Empire in 2001.

On Jan. 15, 1960, Wallace married Dorothy Jack in Vancouver, Wash. He had met her in Juneau, and he adopted all of her kids. That summer, Walt Disney invited him to carve a totem pole in "Indianland," a display in Disneyland. The state of Oregon also asked him to carve a pole for Oregon's centennial.

Wallace carved and spoke in schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He has also carved poles for museums in Cincinnati, Toronto and Boston.

In 1963, he turned down a request to build a pole for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But the university asked again the next year, and he agreed, constructing a 49-foot high pole for the campus. He created two more poles in Fairbanks in 1967 for Alaskaland Park. According to an Empire story, one of the poles slipped into the Chena River during a flood. Wallace and some friends jumped in a skiff and retrieved the runaway art from the water.

"Today you can walk into any storefront on Franklin Street and find handmade Alaska Native art," Henrikson said. "We owe a debt of gratitude to people who, in spite of whatever pressure they might have been under, persevered and really kept it alive until the next generation could take off with it."

In the mid-1960s, Wallace began teaching himself to engrave silver. He quickly became adept at the medium, and his work sold in retail shops.

"Once I got started it was great," Wallace told the Empire in 2001. "It was fun. I got a mill - you could roll a coin through it and it would flatten it, then I could cut it to shape. I could get two bracelets out of a silver dollar."

Wallace still has two poles in the Federal Building, one at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, one at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center and untold numbers in private collections around Southeast and the world.

Wallace was a heavy equipment operator during work on the Trans-Alaska pipeline. He created an 8-by-22-foot wall panel for the Alaska Marine Highway terminal in Bellingham, Wash. And he made a set of panels for the Juneau-Douglas High School commons in the mid-1980s. Wallace carved his last large pole in the late-1970s for a collector in Denver.

Wallace also served on the board of the Alaska Native Arts and Craft Association and the Douglas Indian Association.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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