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New totem pole honors Seward story’s complexity
A crowd gathers in Totem Park as a crane
operated by Marble Construction lifts Stephen
Jackson's William Seward shame pole on
Saturday, April 29, 2017 in Saxman.
Staff photo by Taylor Balkom


Daily News Staff Writer

Tlingit carver Stephen Jackson watched as a newly completed totem pole was hoisted up high and swung over the Saxman Tribal House, and he then guided the lift operator and ground personnel in positioning the pole in its place on April 29 at the Saxman Totem Park.

Jackson had worked on this particular pole — the second replacement of a pole originally erected on Tongass Island by Chief Ebbit about 135 years ago, — off and on since 2014.

Its focal point is the face and figure of William H. Seward, who visited Tongass Island in 1869. Two years earlier, as U.S. secretary of state, Seward had negotiated the U.S. purchase of the Alaska territory from Russia. He had retired from government service before his visit to Alaska, during which he was honored by the Tlingit on Tongass Island with a potlatch and after which had departed with many gifts from the Tongass Tribe.

However, Seward didn’t follow Tlingit protocol and reciprocate the potlatch to return the honor. The tribe highlighted the failure by raising a totem pole that depicted Seward with his nose and ears painted red as a sign of shame.

“He never returned the potlatch, and didn’t understand protocol, and that's why that pole went up,” Willard Jackson Sr., a Tongass Tribe member of the Brown Bear Clan who spoke during the brief pole-raising event on April 29, said in a later interview.

A replica of the original pole was carved during the 1930s as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps project in Saxman, where the replica stood until it had deteriorated to the point of being unsafe and was taken down in 2014.

Harvey Shields, the Saanya Kwaan clan leader on the Raven side (Chuck Denny is the Saanya Kwaan clan leader on the Eagle side) was serving at that time as mayor of the City of Saxman, which commissioned the carving of the replacement pole.

“We’re like the caretakers of all the poles (in the totem park),” Shields said Wednesday, noting the situation that occurred with deterioration of the Seward pole. “As caretakers, we take it down and commission someone to recarve it.”

Stephen Jackson received the commission. On April 29, he spoke to those gathered in the cool, windy drizzle of that afternoon to witness the pole-raising.

“It’s a honor to keep the complexity of this story alive, the complexity of the encounter, knowing that it’s not only a pole of shame, but a respect for the history that had occurred, and I appreciated this opportunity,” he said.

Atop the pole itself, the remarkably detailed image of William Seward began its long vigil, looking out across the land and seascape of Saxman, Tongass Narrows and beyond.


The complex history of the Seward encounter, and the movement of the Tongass Tribe and Cape Fox Tribe to this area, were touched upon during the brief ceremony of April 29, which was conducted by Willard Jackson.

It included a carver’s dance accompanied by a song sung by Gloria Burns, a local Haida woman.

Willard Jackson explained later that his family couldn’t do their songs because they’d had someone pass away recently and were still in mourning.

“So I really appreciated Gloria Burns and her family and the Haida Nation for offering songs,” he said.

Burns said the song that she chose for the carver’s dance translated in part to: “If it wasn’t for you, we would not be here.

“Because that speaks to the ownership of the people on this land, the people whose stories are connected to the totem pole, and the talent that Stephen has and the hard work that he has put in to bringing this project to an end,” she said.

Willard Jackson Sr., whose Tlingit name is Kliewaan, meaning “calm of the bay,” spoke of a conversation he had with one of Seward’s direct descendents, Ray Messenger.

Messenger was unable to attend the event due to health, but sent a note that was read by Willard Jackson Jr. of the Eagle Nest House of Sitka.

“It is my understanding that the totem pole tells the story of your history,” Messenger wrote. “The more I learn  of that history, the more I respect the people of your tribe. I have seen a picture of the new pole and am amazed at the detail in it. It is truly a work of art.

“The carver Stephen Jackson showed amazing skill and dedication in creating it. This history this totem pole tells will continue to be on display for generations to come,” he continued. “ ... May peace and good health surround you.”

The event later concluded with a “Good Morning” chant by Burns.

Stephen Jackson’s rendition of the Seward pole is considerably more detailed than the second version that it replaced.

He spoke with the Daily News after the ceremony about the process of its carving.

Commissioned by the City of Saxman, the pole was carved from a western red cedar log from Prince of Wales Island, donated by Sealaska Corp. Cape Fox Corp. donated some funding for the maintenance.

It was carved in Saxman’s Edwin C. DeWitt Carving Center, which, along with the multi-layered complexity of the pole, attracted Stephen Jackson to the project.

 “I was attracted by the complexity, and it was my first time replacing a pole here in Saxman — in this carving shed where I learned how to carve with my father (Nathan Jackson) and other people,” he said, adding that the recent remodel of the carving shed “allowed for a fuller and richer carving experience.”

Periods of carving were interspersed with Jackson completing his Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University, teaching at Columbia, and recuperating from a shoulder injury. He had assistance on the project from Tlingit artist Robert K. Mills from Kake, and local carver Christian Dalton.

Jackson researched the original pole, studying photos supplied by Jim Sinard of the Alaska State Library. Focusing on the face, Jackson said it resembled the actual face of Seward much more than had the face on the second pole.

“The original seemed, appeared to me, to represent the face much more closely than the second version that was done in the ‘30s,” Stephen Jackson said. “So while replacing this pole, replacing the second version, I attempted to get as close as possible to the intention of both the people who were making the second version in the ‘30s and even more so the people who did that first one.”

In that sense, the new pole is more lifelike than the second version.

“The point that I left it bore a relationship to pieces that I had been looking at from the similar time that the … first version had been created, pieces that were depictions of Europeans,” he said. “Sometimes humorous, sometimes the intention is a little unclear as to what is being portrayed. But the blend of caricature and realism is something that I noticed in those historical pieces.”

He noted that some features of the Seward pole lend themselves to the concept of a shame pole. The head is large, and is wearing a hat that “maybe he looks uncomfortable wearing,” Jackson said. The neck is kind-of being squeezed out of the collar.

There are elements of humor, but the image of Seward on this pole goes beyond broad caricature and moves toward a thought-provoking realism.

“I think the realism and going as closely as possible to Seward, the resemblance of Seward, allows it to not rest solely in the ridicule of Seward, but allows for the honoring of the complexity of that encounter,” Stephen Jackson.

On April 29, Willard Jackson Sr. said that if you looked up at the face on this pole, “it’s real. It’s a real human being you're looking at.”

In an interview this week, Willard Jackson noted the level of detail in the current pole and that it wasn’t a direct replica of the 1930s version that had only a basic carving of face.

“The one Stephen did was a full replica of Seward's face, which I thought was wonderful,” Willard Jackson said. ”He’s done a marvelous job.”