Museum gets totem pole newly carved in ancient wood

Piece by piece, the curls of wood have fallen from the ancient log to the floor at David A. Boxley’s feet.

Little by little, his adze and knife have carved from the fragrant cedar the image of the eagle, who was saved by the young Indian; the chief whose village was, in turn, saved by the eagle; and the people, who were spared by the cycle of good deeds.

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This week, in the Potomac Atrium of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, the renowned 59-year-old Tsimshian totem carver and his son, David R. Boxley, 30, are re-creating the magical story in a 22-foot-long, 2,500-pound pole.

And in this season of Congressional gridlock and political bitterness, the Boxleys hope the old Northwest fable of gratitude and benevolence may be a public tonic when the pole is raised in the museum a few blocks from the Capitol.

But mainly the huge totem — prone for now as the artists finish it — is a message from the carvers, and the museum, that their culture has survived, despite a century of crushing obstacles.

“There’s few of us,” the elder Boxley said. “But we’re alive and well. We wanted to let people know we’re alive and well.”

Indeed, the “heathen” culture of the Tsimshian — pronounced sim-she-AN — had been so damaged by Western ways that he had to learn totem carving not from his elders, but by reading books and visiting museums.

“The native culture didn’t exist when I was growing up in my village,” he said as he sat beside the totem one day last week, carving under the light of a bright floor lamp. “The missionaries and the government had been too successful.”

It is a harsh and familiar story for many Native Americans, whose cultures were trampled by expansion, racism and oppression. The mission of the museum is to celebrate what survives, still thrives, or can be restored.

The museum commissioned the totem pole about six months ago, selecting the elder Boxley, who has carved 69 poles in 32 years. This is his 70th.

“Almost anywhere you go, where there’s a major exposition of Northwest coast — particularly Alaskan coast — art, David . . . and his art are there,” said museum director Kevin Gover. “It just made sense, since we don’t have any Tsimshian materials on display, that we would go to David.”

The museum said that for business purposes, the artist did not want the commission fee publicized, adding that the price was well within its budget. Plus, the elder Boxley said, money is “not why we’re doing it.”

Months in the making

The pole was partially carved last fall in his studio in Kingston, Wash., northwest of Seattle. It was shipped via tractor-trailer to the museum, where it arrived Tuesday swathed in cargo blankets and plastic sheeting.

The two men are now completing the carving and painting, and the pole is scheduled to be unveiled Saturday.

On Wednesday, as they used special knives to slice into the pale grain of the wood, the Boxleys talked about their endangered culture, the lore of totem carving, and the legend of the eagle and the chieftain.

Spread on nearby tables was an array of carving knives, chisels and sharpening strops, and a large box of Band-Aids. There were also paintbrushes and containers of black and red paint — the traditional Tsimshian colors.

It was quiet in the museum as they worked, except for the soft sound of the blades slicing away thin layers of wood.

According to the legend, in olden times a young Indian walking along a beach freed an eagle snared in a fishing net, unaware that it was a nax nox — a spirit guardian.

Years later, when the Indian was a chief and his people were starving, the eagle returned and brought him a salmon, then halibut, a porpoise and a whale, and his village was saved.

“The whole idea is: One good turn deserves another,” the elder Boxley said.

His son said it seemed fitting for today. “There’s so much negativity,” he said. “Everywhere.”

Bringing culture back

The totem depicts the black-eyed eagle with a huge beak on top, a cluster of villagers crouching in the middle, and the chief on the bottom, embracing the brightly colored salmon with both arms.

The elder Boxley said the story is his favorite.

His late grandfather, who raised him, was a canoe carver and showed him how to make an adze handle out of a tree branch, and the blade from a leaf spring of a Volkswagen.

Many in the tribe, originally based in British Columbia, relocated via canoe in 1887 to Metlakatla, Alaska, on Annette Island, about 200 miles southeast of Juneau. But in the process, they were compelled to abandon most of their traditions, the younger Boxley said.

“You had to give up everything,” he said. “Ceremonies, totem poles . . . we had to give it up . . . no more heathen activities. . . . It was a bad thing to be an Indian. . . . For all intent and purposes, the culture itself — at least the visual culture — was gone.”

His father, he said, grew up in Metlakatla, and has worked much of his life to bring Tsimshian culture back. Today about 15,000 Tsimshian live in Alaska and Canada.

“This is a big honor for not only my son and I, and our family, but my whole tribe,” the elder Boxley said.

Family stories, legends

The totem pole, the Boxleys noted, is not a religious icon, but was traditionally a residential signpost erected outside a house to tell about who lived within. “They told the stories and legends of the people who owned those houses,” the younger Boxley said.

The elder Boxley, a wiry man with thick, dark hair, and wearing jeans, sneakers and a black fleece, said he grew up working on fishing boats and in canneries. He also worked as a schoolteacher and basketball coach. But he was fascinated by art, and his culture called him, he said.

He said the totem log is red cedar, slowly grown in a canopied forest, and may be 500 or 600 years old. He said cedar is called aam gan — “good wood” — in the Tsimshian language.

And the pole is an emblem of the native communities of the Northwest coast. “It’s a pretty strong symbol of who we are,” he said. “It represents the stories and the great things that happened to our people.”

Personally, “I am carrying the flag for my grandfather,” he said. “He’s my guardian. He’s always with me. He’s not with me anymore, but he’s always there. In that way, I’m very proud to hold his spirit in my hands when I’m carving.”

“I’m a link in a chain,” he said. “Over here is my grandpa. Over here is my kids. I feel real honored to be the one that joins them together.”

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