Klawock raises seven totem poles

Posted: Tuesday, August 23, 2005

KLAWOCK - Even with about 60 people working together, 2,000 or more pounds of carved wood is really heavy, especially when it has to be carried uphill, carefully lowered, spun, pulled upright, readjusted and then held steady as it's bolted into place.

Even so, citizens of Klawock and visitors from all over Alaska, the Lower 48 and even a few from overseas were on hand for the raising of seven totem poles over a three-day period.

Drumming, singing, dancing and cheering accompanied the final pole raising Sunday.

At about 1 p.m., the Raven Clan Pole rose smoothly into the misty air under the direction of Klawock Vice Mayor Nick Nickerson and Public Works Director Frank Kato, and under the careful eye of carver Jon Rowan and his crew of young apprentices. Rowan, who teaches Native arts at Klawock City Schools, carved all seven of the replica poles with the help of the "cream of the crop" of the students.

A tired but happy Rowan said afterward that he felt great satisfaction that those empty spaces at the Klawock Totem Park have been filled. But he said there still is much work to be done. Several more of the park's 1930s-era poles need to come down due to deterioration, he said, and should be replaced with replications like the seven raised last week.

Rowan, who started carving at the age of 6, said he's wanted to replace the rotting poles in the park for many years, and had petitioned the Klawock City Council repeatedly to find a way to make it happen.

"I said, 'Give us a log and we'll carve your totem pole,"' he said. "One day, they dropped off a log."

All the logs for the pole replacement project were donated by Sealaska Corp., Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp President Dewey Skan said on Sunday.

Skan, who also is a Klawock resident, oversaw the celebration, and said the event marked a renaissance of Native culture. Skan said organizers worked hard to imitate their ancestors' ways, and that those ways worked for Alaska Natives for many years.

"My father's people settled this country about 8,000 years ago," he said. "It boggles my mind how innovative they were."

While Sealaska donated the logs, he said, the city of Klawock and the U.S. Forest Service financed the carving. Alaska Native Brotherhood donated food for the celebration.

Even when preparing to lift the 1-ton Raven Clan pole, participants kept smiling at, visiting with and joshing each other. Skan called men from the crowd to take up position at the cross beams under the pole: three on each side, about 10 rows deep.

Elders and children joined energetic teens and middle-aged men to heft the carved log. Several women in regalia started beating drums and singing as Skan counted, "One, two," and all joined in to yell "Three!" as the pole was lifted off its supports.

The drumbeat continued as the grimacing pole bearers shuffled up the hill with the pole, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers who took photos. A few grunts could be heard as they slowly and carefully lowered the pole.

The pole had been carried out face up, but needed to lie face down before it could be lifted into place. The lifters picked the pole up again - this time without the aid of cross beams - spun it, then lowered it again. Then, Nickerson, Kato and their crew secured the numerous ropes used to lift the pole upright.

"Does everyone feel good?" Nickerson yelled. "We're gonna muscle this baby up!"

Audience members took hold of the ropes, and when given the word, they pulled in unison. The pole gracefully rose into the air, joining its brothers to stand proudly in the park facing the sea. A loud, spontaneous cheer broke out, and the pace of the drums quickened in celebration.

The heaviest of the seven was the first to be raised on Thursday morning, said Tom Skultka, one of the pole bearers. He said it also was carried the farthest - about a half mile.

"Jon (Rowan) is my buddy. To see the excitement on his face makes it worthwhile," he said.

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