A totem for the uncles

New pole honors Tlingit teachings from maternal side of family

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

Two new students and their teacher took up permanent residence at the Tlingit-Haida Vocational Training and Resource Center on Friday.

Their names are "Kaa Kaatch A Dei Kusawatx.ye," which in Tlingit means "How Our Uncle Would Raise His Nephews."

The trio appear on a new totem carved by Wayne Price of Haines. One nephew perches on his uncle's shoulder; the other sits in his lap.

To the Tlingit, they are real.

Naming the totem Friday afternoon at the conclusion of much dancing and a luncheon, Frank White, Wolf House leader, referred to the pole as "the person that is standing behind me." He explained, "Once it gets a name it becomes a person, becomes alive."

White began the naming by sprinkling white feathers over the assembled dignitaries "so whoever comes into this house will feel the power of peace."

He continued by recognizing his own uncles, all Wolf House tribal leaders in the Wolf House: Charley Moses, Jimmie Martin, George Dalton, Willie Ross and Edward James.

"They kept telling me that I would take their place some day. There are not very many of us (left) who were trained by their uncles," White said.

"This is a very special occasion because I don't think any of the poles in Southeast portray uncles and nephews," said Archie Cavanaugh Jr., coordinator of the festivities. "This being a training facility, it's very appropriate for such a pole to be here."

Maternal uncles are important teachers of boys in traditional Tlingit culture. "In the old way, the uncle was responsible for the discipline, teaching and training of his nephews. When the nephew was about 10 years old, he went to live with his uncle. The boys learned their history and how to support themselves. And they were toughened up to survive the elements - trained not to turn back from anything," Cavanaugh said. Boys did jobs such as cutting wood and lugging water, and often bathed in the cold sea daily to toughen body and spirit.

The story behind this particular pole was told by Cavanaugh's father, Archie Cavanaugh Sr. of Kake. Cavanaugh Sr. also bestowed the Tlingit name of the totem as well as the name of the training center, "Haa Kaak Has Ka Hidi" in 1998, meaning "Our Uncle's House."


Telling the story at the naming ceremony, White said nephews are taught how to hunt, make traps for animals and fish, where the best hunting spots are located and how to preserve their food for the long winter.

The 24-foot-high pole was carved from a red cedar log donated by Sealaska, the Juneau-based regional Native corporation, and transported from Ketchikan to Haines where Price lives.

The pole's creation was funded by a grant of $24,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was matched by the Tlingit-Haida Central Council.

Price, 43, has 29 years of carving experience under his belt. Working mostly on commission, he creates bowls, rattles, spoons and silver jewelry in the Northwest Coast style. He is currently working on two dance staffs for the Sitka Tribe and completed a 20-foot red cedar canoe for the Alaska Native Heritage Center last September.

Price was born in Juneau and raised in Haines, where his carving teachers included John Hagen, Leo Jacobs and Jenny Lyn Smith. "They taught me and now I'm teaching the next generation," Price said.

The pole took three months to carve. His sons, Warren, 14, and Steven, 10, pitched in. "They would come over after school and help dad," Price said proudly.

Steven said he worked with mallet and chisel "on the front, the back and the uncle."

Other dignitaries attending Friday's ceremony included Walter A. Soboleff, who gave the invocation, Juneau elder Cecelia Kunz and Mark Jacobs. Cyril George of Angoon, leader of the Beaver House and representing the deserted village of Basket Bay, presented the closing prayer.

Lunch included seaweed salad, herring egg salad, smoked salmon spread on pilot crackers, fry bread, watermelon and chocolate cake. Anna Miller, her daughter Toni Houston, Sharon Olsen, Connie Munro, Helen Sarabia, Nora Dauenhauer, Dorothy Wallace, Eunice Akagi, Connie Davis, Amelia Florendo and Bunny Mercer were among those who began working in the kitchen at 8 a.m. for the 1 p.m. meal.

Nine dance groups performed, including the Yun Shu Ka lead by Walter Soboleff Jr., the Marks Trail Geesan Dancers, the Haa eeti Kaa, and the Mt. Juneau Tlingit Dancers led by Rosa Miller with her daughter Fran Houston from Hoonah as the narrator.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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