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