For nearly three quarters of a century, the Yax té totem has stood sentry over what once was a small shoreline village in southeast Alaska.
The 47-foot red cedar pole, also known as the Big Dipper totem, was erected in 1941 at the Auke Recreation Area near Juneau. Once a village for Auke Tlingit Natives, the recreation site perches near the tree-lined shores of a clear, salty bay sprinkled with wooded islands.
It is a pristine location for the Yax té totem, intricately carved with six bird faces and topped with a colorful, three-dimensional raven. A sturdy Tlingit noble woman, carved into the base, supports the entire 4,700-pound pole, which symbolizes “a place where a strong tribe flourished.”
For almost 70 years, the pole stood as a tribute to the Aak’w Kwáan people, the ancestors of the Tlingit and the first to settle in the Juneau area. But decades of Juneau’s harsh maritime climate took a toll on the totem and in 2010, fearing the wind could topple the Yax té, the Forest Service lowered the pole and moved it to a warehouse for safekeeping.
Up close, the damage was more extensive than anyone had imagined, said Myra Gilliam, a Forest Service archaeologist. The pole had decayed at its base where it had been planted directly in the soil, but it also showed deterioration all the way to the top.
“We looked carefully and found insect infestation and honeycombing of the wood,” Gilliam said. “We found woodpecker holes, bullet holes and evidence that it was vandalized.”
That close inspection prompted the Forest Service to repair the totem. The ensuing journey took archaeologists, artists and local Natives back to the totem’s birth in the years just prior to World War II.
In 1941, Frank St. Clair, a Tlingit man from Hoonah, and two members of the Civil Conservation Corps carved the totem. The pole, wrapped with the iconic symbols of the Tlingit people, was part of a broader vision for a “totem park” in Auke Village—a plan cut short by WWII and subsequent funding shortages for the conservation corps.
Although commerce sprung up along the bay in the years following the war, the Yax té totem endured as the sole chapter in what might have been a more comprehensive carved history of the Aak’w Kwáan, said Wayne Price, a Tlingit carver from Haines, Alaska, who was hired by the Forest Service to restore the totem.
“Among Natives of the northwest coast, 10,000 years of history was kept intact by the carving of totem poles,” said Price, who spent a month this year painstakingly restoring the Yax té totem. “In fact, a totem can be recognized as our history book. Our legends were oral and they were carved on the totems.”
According to Tlingit culture, each generation learns the stories from the elders. When a totem rots, it is carved again, Price said.
“Today, totems still represent history, culture and identity,” he said. “They are still the keepers of our stories.”
Price, who began carving at age 12, has 45 years of experience working with canoes and totems. His goal with the Yax té totem was to enhance the original artist’s work. When he got to work, however, he found dry rot within an inch of the exterior carvings.
“It’s made of western red cedar, which is famous for rotting from the center out,” he said. “The majority of my work is hidden. I restored, repaired, fixed and filled. Then I put bolts through it, scrubbed it down, scraped it around, repainted it and finished it off.”
The result, Price said, is a sturdier, more vibrant version of the familiar totem, which the Forest Service plans to re-erect at the Auke Recreation Area later this year.
Although he labored for 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week for more than a month, Price was not alone in the workshop. He received unexpected help from Fred Fulmer, the great-grandson of the original carver.
Along with 20 years of carving experience, Fulmer brought four generations of St. Clair’s descendants to work on what he called “grandpa’s totem pole.”
“What I really liked was looking at the pole up close and personal,” Fulmer said. “When it was standing, it was 47 feet tall, so I’ve always admired the raven on top from a distance. When it was lying down, I could see the tail feathers, the designs on the wings.”
Fulmer helped repaint the totem, with assistance from his daughter, granddaughter and infant great-granddaughter. The experience restored Fulmer’s ties with his family and culture—both past and present.
“This totem is the story of the Auke Bay people, given to them by Frank St. Clair,” he said. “As one of the descendants, to be able to help restore that, put it back up, it feels like history is being repeated.”
Over the past 75 years, the Yax té totem has become significant not only to the Tlingit, but to the history of Juneau itself. The pole is believed to be the oldest totem on record in southeast Alaska.
The totem’s significance crosses cultural boundaries, Price said. He invites all who see Yax té to consider its meaning.
“What comes to mind when you see these monuments in cedar?” he said. “There should be a little bit of soul-searching from within.”