Tow­er­ing trib­ute

A mas­ter carver cre­ates a totem pole to hon­our his sis­ter-in-law.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By RON JUDD

MOST peo­ple know that totem poles, the sig­na­ture art­work of north-west coastal tribes in the United States, use im­agery to tell sto­ries. But few can grasp the story’s mean­ing, feel the deep in­spi­ra­tion of the carver – or even know where to start read­ing the tale.

Case in point: Tsimshian carver David Box­ley’s lat­est ver­ti­cal master­piece, a majestic 8m totem raised re­cently at the en­trance to North­west Hos­pi­tal to hon­our the life of his re­cently departed sis­terin-law, Cindy Sue James – and the lov­ing care af­forded to her by hos­pi­tal staff dur­ing her fi­nal days there.

It’s log­i­cal to as­sume that the fig­ure at the pole’s apex – in this case, a broad-winged ea­gle, rep­re­sent­ing the ea­gle clan of the Tsimshian peo­ple of south-east Alaska – is the pri­mary in­spi­ra­tion be­hind the painstak­ing work to con­vert an old-growth log to a work of art. It’s true to an ex­tent; James died from uter­ine can­cer, and the pole is a trib­ute to her brav­ery.

But north-west coastal tribal tra­di­tion is more nu­anced.

Swinomish tribal chair­man Brian Cladoosby says that un­der­stand­ing the pole’s iconog­ra­phy re­quires turn­ing non-na­tive cul­tural norms up­side-down.

“Lead­ers, women, are al­ways at the bot­tom of a totem pole – hold­ing the peo­ple up,” Cladoosby ex­plains. Other tribal lead­ers echo the sen­ti­ment, not­ing that the Euro­cen­tric in­ter­pre­ta­tion of some­one “at the bot­tom of the totem pole” car­ries a deroga­tory mean­ing.

Not so in the minds of carvers, past or present. Box­ley, 65, one of the most ac­tive and hon­oured totem pole-carvers alive in the United States to­day, says he placed his sis­ter-in-law ex­actly where she be­longs: as a foun­da­tion for her fam­ily and peo­ple.

This is why Ea­gle’s Spirit is an­chored to Mother Earth by a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of James. The “sig­na­ture dim­ples” on the carved fig­urine give a hint of her ef­fer­ves­cence to vis­i­tors and pa­tients at the hos­pi­tal that James be­lieved de­served hon­our for its treat­ment of the suf­fer­ing and the dis­abled, par­tic­u­larly those struck by can­cer.

In her stylised de­pic­tion on the pole, Box­ley has left James, a lo­cal ac­coun­tant, stand­ing in im­mor­tal­ity se­curely but ten­derly clutch­ing the shoul­ders of her grand­son, Do­minic, seven, “the light of her life, from the day he was born”.

Box­ley placed his rel­a­tive – a long­time dear friend, fel­low tribal dancer, and en­thu­si­as­tic war­rior in the bat­tle to pre­serve the threat­ened north-west coast tribal cul­ture of the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlin­git – at the pole’s base be­cause she was a bedrock for her peo­ple.

“She was the glue around her fam­ily,” Box­ley says. “She was re­ally strong.”

Box­ley’s medium is the West­ern red cedar, the cloud-scrap­ing green sen­tinel tree that housed and clothed his an­ces­tors, and still pro­vides what many con­sider spir­i­tual soli­tude to those lucky enough to en­ter the ethe­real, mossy do­mains of the last stands of the coastal gi­ants from Ore­gon to south-east Alaska.

When the tree’s flesh – a fra­grant, fi­brous wood with leg­endary weath­er­proof longevity – is cut, pushed, prod­ded, willed, and shaped over many months into a totem, the re­sult­ing pole will keep telling its story for cen­turies.

James de­served all of that, Box­ley says. But the totem is unique in that it sprung from her own imag­i­na­tion – a spark of cre­ative light dur­ing her dark­est hours in­tended to bring mean­ing to the suf­fer­ing en­dured by can­cer vic­tims and their fam­i­lies.

In count­less vis­its to the hos­pi­tal fol­low­ing her first can­cer di­ag­no­sis, James and her sis­ter Michelle – or other mem­bers of a fam­ily that seemed con­stantly by her side – passed by an age­ing totem pole that has stood for four decades at the old en­trance to North­west Hos­pi­tal, part of UW (Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton ) Medicine.

One day, James, whose force­ful per­son­al­ity was le­gend, took aside her favourite nurse and blurted: “You guys ought to get rid of that ugly totem pole,” Box­ley re­calls. “She said, ‘You should make a new one to hon­our all the can­cer pa­tients who have come through this hos­pi­tal. And I know who could do the work: my brother-in­law.’

“One thing led to an­other,” Box­ley says. “I did a draw­ing (of his con­cept for the pole), took it to Cindy, and she ap­proved ev­ery bit of it, even planned a good deal of what’s go­ing to hap­pen (at the pole’s ded­i­ca­tion).”

The pole com­bines tribal tra­di­tion with modern sym­bol­ism re­lated to suf­fer­ing, cur­ing, and heal­ing. To Box­ley, steeped in the of­ten­painful modern his­tory of his peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly the dev­as­tat­ing epi­demics af­ter Euro­pean con­tact, it is a fit­ting blend.

The pole’s top fig­ure rep­re­sents the fam­ily’s clan, the ea­gle, or laxskiik, of the Tsimshian Na­tion. The next fig­ure down, a shaman wear­ing a colour­ful bear-claw head­dress and hold­ing a rat­tle and mor­tar and pes­tle, rep­re­sents doc­tors and care­givers bat­tling can­cer – and giv­ing com­fort to those who, like James, prove in­cur­able.

The cen­tre fig­ures on the pole rep­re­sent past, present, and fu­ture can­cer pa­tients. On ei­ther side of the bent­wood box upon which they sit are me­mo­rial rib­bons hon­our­ing vic­tims of can­cer. From the cen­tre peeks a diminu­tive fig­ure – “Mouse Woman”, James’ iden­tity in her many years of tribal danc­ing with Box­ley’s Git-Hoan Dance group, which has trav­elled the world to cel­e­brate tribal cul­ture.

At the base of the pole is James her­self, hold­ing her grand­son, her face and fea­tures carved by Box­ley’s son, David Robert, also a skilled tribal artist. It is, in totem pole terms, a re­mark­able like­ness, Box­ley says.

Like all of Box­ley’s work, the pole was carved us­ing a blend of tra­di­tional meth­ods and modern tools. It started out as a sin­gle, thick red cedar log, about 8m long, in Box­ley’s garage which is spe­cially adapted for pole-carv­ing with a door at ei­ther end to ease en­try and exit. He be­gan carv­ing in Jan­uary, first us­ing a chain saw to hol­low out the pole’s ex­te­rior. (This is the least artis­tic as­pect of the job: “That part is just work,” Box­ley says with a chuckle. “Any­one can do that.”)

The next phase is re­moval, with hand tools, of fi­brous wood, to form the pole’s gen­eral fea­tures. Box­ley uses a hand­crafted adze, de­signed with the aid of his grand­fa­ther. The han­dle is the crook of an alder-tree branch, the blade a piece of the sus­pen­sion of a de­crepit Volk­swa­gen bug.

Box­ley is 65 years old. Grow­ing up in his vil­lage, Met­lakatla, a 15-minute plane ride or hour-long boat trek south of Ketchikan, and in his later life in the Seat­tle area, which in­cluded art stud­ies at Seat­tle Pa­cific Univer­sity, Box­ley dab­bled in tra­di­tional art in var­i­ous forms. In the early 1980s, when he was in his early 30s, Box­ley grav­i­tated to­ward full-time pole-carv­ing, and even­tu­ally be­came recog­nised as an elite carver.

Gain­ing that sta­tus was no sim­ple thing. Like many tribal peo­ple, Box­ley’s fam­ily lin­eage is scarred by decades of cul­tural sup­pres­sion, much of it forced by Euro­pean set­tlers, in­clud­ing mis­sion­ar­ies who pun­ished tribal mem­bers for speak­ing their na­tive lan­guage or en­gag­ing in tribal cus­toms. Tra­di­tional skills such as carv­ing, honed over mil­len­nia, fell by the way­side.

But Box­ley found plenty of ex­am­ples of his fore­bears’ work in mu­se­ums, gal­leries and her­itage sites. He stud­ied their work and re­verse-engi­neered, in a sense, their craft, right down to the hand­made tools and carv­ing strokes. His own art­work, whether carv­ings or songs and dances he writes and per­forms at pot­latches (tra­di­tional gath­er­ings he helped re­vive for his clan in the 1990s), com­bines modern means and sen­si­bil­i­ties with that an­cient ac­quired skill.

“No­body taught me how to do this,” he says, as he fin­ishes del­i­cate, de­tailed carv­ing on the wings of the Ea­gle’s Spirit pole in his garage. “I’ve taught my­self. I just started do­ing it. I’m re­ally a stu­dent of the old Tsimshian style.”

Hop­ing to avoid the dis­con­nect in his peo­ple’s re­cent past, he has al­ready passed, by ex­am­ple, much of what he knows to David Robert. The younger Box­ley carved many of the fea­tures on the pole. Other fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing James’ sis­ter Michelle and mother, Carol, ap­plied paint and other touches. And through­out its early life as a totem, the hulk­ing cedar in Box­ley’s garage was dark­ened by many a fall­ing tear. – Seat­tle Times/ Tri­bune News Ser­vice

— Pho­tos: TNS

Box­ley carv­ing his 77th totem pole – Ea­gle’s Spirit – in his stu­dio.

Box­ley danc­ing next to the totem at its ded­i­ca­tion. James – com­plete with dim­ple on the right cheek – is por­trayed hold­ing grand­son Do­minic at the bot­tom of the pole.

Friends, fam­ily and North­west Hos­pi­tal em­ploy­ees gather as Eagel’s Spirit is ded­i­cated in front of the hos­pi­tal re­cently.

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