Veterans' totem ascends

'Warrior Pole' carved by Sitka veteran raised during celebration

Posted: Friday, November 10, 2006

The Southeast Alaska Native Veterans have been talking for several years about hiring a master carver to carve a totem pole. Finally, Vietnam veteran George Bennett Sr. took the project on himself.

Bennett's 6-foot-tall "Warrior Pole," in salute to veterans, was raised Thursday during a noon cultural celebration outside the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. Almost 100 people attended. A dance group performed and speakers from the Raven and Eagle moieties shared their thoughts.

"We do this so our future generations will never forget what their ancestors did on their behalf," said Frank White, of the Eagle clan.

"We've been looking for this kind of closure from a cultural perspective," Bennett said."I think this totem pole allows us to reach back in our own cultural way to our spirituality. It symbolizes who we are. That's the reason why we call it the 'Warrior Pole.'"

The "Warrior Pole" was set up next to a series of white marble headstones, which were moved this fall from Sealaska Plaza to the ANB Hall. Three of the stones depict the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian words for "courage," while the other three carry the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian words for "warrior."

The pole includes an eagle and a raven standing on top of a bentwood box.

"When I look at that bentwood box, with the spirit face on it, that will be the holder of the spirit of our warriors," Bennett said. "The raven and the eagle are the guardians."

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Harold Jacobs sang the "Warrior Song" during the raising. Jacobs composed the song three years ago.

"That really put some good feeling into the whole thing," Bennett said. "It was a very emotional time for me."

Bennett, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, lives in Sitka, where he works as a ranger interpreter for the Sitka National Historical Park during the season. He's of the Raven moiety and was raised in Hoonah. He served as a radio operator in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam (1967-1968).

This April, during the Tlingit & Haida General Assembly, Bennett decided to take on the project.

"Sometimes you have to lead by example and set the tone and others will follow," Bennett said. "I took that to heart and thought, 'Maybe I can still help my warriors and this can still happen without all kinds of fundraising.' "

Bennett began the work Oct. 5 in Sitka, with his youngest son, James. The pole is about 6 feet tall. It's the bottom piece of a 70-foot segment of a 120-foot-tall yellow cedar. The top piece was used for a replicated Haida pole for the Sitka National Historic Park.

After two weeks working in Sitka, Bennett packed the pole into his Jeep and brought it with him as he attended a series of clan parties in Juneau and Angoon.

"I had a lot of assistance; there are a lot of good carvers in Sitka," Bennett said. "I had a lot of help here in Juneau, too. I do Tlingit art, but I'm not a big-time carver. I do bentwood boxes and I paint. But I still had a vision."

Bennett spent 10 to 12 hours a day on the carving in the last five days. The final push started at 7 a.m. Wednesday and concluded 21 hours later, at 4 a.m. Thursday. Bennett enjoyed four hours of sleep, before returning to the warehouse to attach the totem's long metal support pipe.

"If I was a master carver, I could have done something like this in a couple of weeks," Bennett said. "I see what they go through now. It was a learning process, and I'm glad I did it."

Bennett dedicated the pole to his son, James.

Armistice Day was first observed on Nov. 11, 1919, and became a national holiday in 1938. President Dwight E. Eisenhower renamed it "Veterans Day" in 1954.

There are 24,790,000 military veterans in the United States in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Roughly 74.9 percent of those are older than 50.

For more photos, see our audio slideshow: Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Warrior Pole Dedication

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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