SEWARD - Inmates at the Spring Creek Correctional Center have finished carving a totem pole that represents all Natives.
The 30-foot totem project became a reality despite a maze of hurdles for members of the center's Native Heritage Culture group.
"It took a lot of patience, a lot of coordination with administration and a lot of time," inmate Harry Lewis, chief of the Native group, said earlier this month as he and fellow carver Ken Kitka put the finishing touches on the totem stretched out across the patio next to the prison visiting room.
A locked tool box in a corner of the patio holds tools ranging from chain saws and axes to small specialized implements hand-crafted by Lewis. He said he didn't know what he was getting himself into when he was asked to head the project in 1995.
"I have to maintain a job within the institution also," Lewis told the Seward Phoenix LOG.
Carving a totem inside a maximum-security prison is no easy feat, but cooperation between the administration and the inmates was a big factor, Lewis said.
The prison received two 40-foot red cedar logs donated by Ketchikan Pulp Co. in 1995. The poles were in a loading area of the prison that was inappropriate for inmate access for quite some time before Afognak Logging transported the logs to the patio area.
Carving didn't begin until about two years ago after a traditional blessing by Tlingit elders Richard Dalton Sr., George Bennett Sr. and James Lindhoff.
The totem is being donated to the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage, a private nonprofit health corporation. The second cedar log will go to Hiland Mountain Correctional Center for carving, according to prison Superintendent Garland Armstrong.
The pole was designed by former Spring Creek inmate Chris Jackson from Southeast Alaska and depicts an eagle, wolf, shaman, killer whale and a bear.
As well as representing all Native people, the pole also is dedicated to those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, as recognized at a recent prison potlatch.
According to a flier distributed at the event, the totem's eagle represents the human spirit and is a symbol of foresight. The wolf is a pack animal that does well in groups but alone struggles with life as do people. The shaman represents all of mankind, all races. The killer whale is a pod animal and represents the importance of family. The bear represents strength and power, thus its position at the base of the pole.
Other carvers in addition to Jackson, Lewis and Kitka include: Michael Dunkin, James Simpkin, William Moore, Patrick Harrington and Spring Creek correctional center employee Sgt. Earl Houser.
Painters and helpers included Superintendent Armstrong, as well as prison workers Herbert Everett and Allen Chase.