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By JOHN LEE McLAUGHLIN
Daily News Staff Writer
Newly minted Ketchikan freshman Kyan Kimberley was like many others who might gaze at a totem pole, and at first blush, see nothing but hewn figures and beasts.
And it wasn’t until the now-alumnus of Schoenbar Middle School put tools in hand to help carve the school’s now freshly raised totem pole that Kimberly said he realized the carvings’ significance and purpose in tribal heritage of time immemorial.
“At first, when I saw a totem pole, I just kinda saw different animals, or like, I didn’t know what else you would call them,” Kimberley explained on Thursday, when he and the rest of Schoenbar students and staff dedicated the final day of the school year to a pole-raising and potlatch celebration honoring the new pole.
“They’re not just animals,” he said of the carvings. “They have meaning behind them and why they’re on that totem pole.”
With grant funding from the Rasmuson Foundation and Alaska State Council on the Arts, Schoenbar students and others communitywide helped carve the pole during the past school year, in and outside of class, guided by art instructor Angel Williams and noted local carver Kenneth “Kelly” White, an artist in residence this past school year at the middle school.
During the Thursday festivities, White explained that he had visited Schoenbar students the previous year to detail the symbolism of various totem pole figures and how they relate to Alaska Native culture of the Northwest Coast.
As a result, seven figures — each relating in some way to wayfinding, White said — now comprise Schoenbar’s new “Pathfinder” totem pole.
Students there, with insight from White, chose which figures would adorn the pole.
“And I took their ideas, their drawings of their totem poles,” he said, “and I collaborated them together in order to make the figures that you see right here today.”
The pole now standing near the front of the school along Schoenbar Road is topped by a killer whale, which Native peoples often would follow to navigate the treacherous waters of coastal Southeast Alaska, en route to and from other villages, White said.
“So we put the killer whale up there to represent people who would be considered role models, people you would follow — your parents, your teachers, your elders,” he explained. “All of these people are trying to guide you to the safest passage while you’re traveling village-to-village throughout your life.”
The sun is perched below the killer whale, as one looks to the sun to determine the season, White said, notably the summer for subsistence fishing and winter for refuge and celebration.
Below the sun lies the wolf, one of the eldest clans of the region, he said.
“Often times you would follow the wolf while trying to hunt on land,” White noted. “The wolf worked in packs. They had to communicate with one another. They could not survive by themselves, alone in the wilderness.”
“The same thing goes with anyone else in this world,” he added. “It’s not about just one. It’s about all of us.”
Near the base of the pole is the octopus and its eight tentacles. It’s a shaman favorite, White said.
He explained that the number eight is considered lucky among the Tlingit, as well as many other cultures, and coincides with what is considered in tribal culture to be the eight main bones of humans.
“You have two in each arm and two in each leg,” White said. “So this here would be your support. This will be your luck, your spiritual healing.”
Three carved figures at the base of the totem pole — representing the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures — are flanked by salmon.
“The salmon ... they have to persevere in order to get to their spawning grounds,” White said. “They have to start at the very bottom, and they have to work really hard, up the streams.
“They have to keep swimming, through all of the rushing water,” he said, “so that is kind of like you children here today; you are working against the tides and the waters in order to get to your destination.”
Lastly, at bottom-center of the totem is a bentwood box, in which the most prized of possessions traditionally are stored, White said.
The bentwood box also features an eagle-raven, or lovebird, design.
“A lovebird design was created to represent those of non-Native descent, people who obviously are not of the Northwest Coast culture,” White said. “You are very much a part of our lives today as we help raise this totem pole here.”
After the pole-raising, members of the New Path Dancers, Haida Descendents, Cape Fox Dancers and Tongass Tribe Dance Group performed.
Municipal, school district and other community leaders also spoke at the beginning of the Thursday celebration.
Williams, the Schoenbar art instructor, was among them, receiving a standing ovation from the mostly student crowd as the driving force behind the new pole.
Williams told the crowd that, with the influence and help of many others, she had wanted to fashion a new pole at Schoenbar for the past nine years.
The school last had a totem pole nearly a decade ago. Too worn to be reinstalled, it permanently was removed when Schoenbar underwent major renovations, according to school Principal Sherilynn Boehlert, who said the old pole will be left to naturally decompose in a grassy area near the school.
Williams said the former pole had been a part of her Schoenbar experience since 1991, when she began teaching there. Missing once the school reopened, she said, the pole became something she dearly missed.
“It was a part of our culture,” Williams said during the ceremony. “It was a part of our community and a part of our school. ... I’ve been trying and trying and trying to get people to either bring it back or have another one.”
“It is a community pole,” she said, noting that students and community members of all ages and abilities helped in creating the pole. “It brings us together, no matter our background, our heritage, or religion. No matter what we have, we are a community here at Schoenbar, and (the pole) is a representation of our togetherness and our community.”