Tsimshian master carver visits Juneau

Pete Clevenger works while visiting his daughter at the Friends of the Alaska State Museum Store

Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pete Clevenger, a Tsimshian master carver from Metlakatla, has spent the past two weeks in Juneau working on a variety of pieces at the Friends of the Alaska State Museum Store.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Born in Metlakatla and raised in Washington state, Clevenger returned to Alaska in 1972. Carving was one of the ways he reconnected to his culture.

"(I was) looking for something to pass on to the next generation," he said. "I found it. And here it is, it's the culture, it's the carving, the dancing."

Clevenger came to Juneau to visit his daughter, Starlene White, who works in the museum store, and his grandson.

Since his arrival, Clevenger has completed a raven clapper, a killer whale and raven paddle, several spoons and two walking sticks: one with raven and the other with raven and dog salmon. He also has a raven headdress on display at the store.

"Each one is always different," he says of his work. "I don't make the same thing (twice). Each pattern is different."

Clevenger carves and paints a vast array of objects from masks and headdresses to paddles, tables, walking sticks and spoons. He also designs blankets and ceremonial wear.

In addition, Clevenger has completed five small totem poles: a wolf, an eagle, a killerwhale, and two ravens, which rest on his family's grave.

"I honor them first," he said. "I honor them first then I will honor the rest, I will honor the living afterward."

Clevenger began carving in 1968 in Washington.

"I knew I was a carver," he said. "I liked to carve. I like to work with my hands."

It started as a hobby in his spare time but as people came to know and like his work, he carved for them as well.

He says he's carved too many pieces to count and has sold most of them. However, he keeps the family blankets. Clevenger said people looking for his work should look for "quality."

Clevenger has also been dancing with the fourth generation Tsimshian dancers since 1992.

"Pete has been a delight. He didn't even come prepared to work," said Jeanette Lackey, manager of the museum store.

She said having a master carver in was a pleasant surprise.

"We didn't even know he'd do it until he got here," she said.

"Everyone has really enjoyed him being here. People come by just to talk to him and to see him carve," she said.

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