pole honors ancestors whose graves were bulldozed in 1956
carver Fred Fulmer Sr. (on the left) and apprentice carvers
Jeffery Isturis and Herb Sheakley work on the Raven Pole that
will promote healing after the desecration of a Tlingit cemetery
in 1956. The pole was raised on May 13 in front of Gastineau
Elementary School, where Tlingit graves were discovered during
a major school renovation in 2012. (photo courtesy Michael
He'd just filled a truck with dirt in front of Juneau's Gastineau
Elementary School in June 2012 and was checking the hole before
sending the truck away when something caught contractor Jim Mason's
eye. It was round and smooth. Mason jumped out of the excavator
for a closer look. As he approached, he recognized what it was.
It was a human skull.
Renovation Reveals a Forgotten Native Cemetery
In 1956, the City of Douglas, Alaska, which was later absorbed
into the City of and Borough of Juneau, wanted to build an elementary
school near the old Douglas Indian Cemetery. No one knew the exact
boundaries of the original cemetery, where members of the Raven
clans of the T'aaku Kwáan, a village of Tlingit Indians,
had been buried since the old mining days of the 1880s. The current
cemetery covers less than a quarter acre and contains only a few
graves, but Native elders knew there were more outside that area.
Some had been moved when the Douglas Highway was put in, some were
just covered over.
City officials knew there were unmarked Native graves in the
area, but didn't seem to care. In 1937 a fire destroyed all records
of the graves, so the city fathers felt free to bulldoze over and
build Gastineau Elementary right on top of them. After all, the
graves were just Indians who had lived in shacks by the water, laborers
who sometimes worked in the local mines. To city leaders, the graves
were useless Native residue left over from the gold rush days. Nearly
60 years later, those hidden graves allowed themselves to be discovered
by a fellow Tlingit.
Indian Village, ca. 1884 (photo courtesy Douglas Indian Association)
Discovery of Native Graves Opens
"We dug and saw some debris. We weren't sure what it was at
first. Then we realized it was the skull of a human and we shut
the process down," Jim Mason recently told ICMN. Mason, a Tlingit
of the Raven Sockeye clan originally from Haines, recalls finding
the remains as he and his company, Glacier
State Contractors, helped renovate Gastineau
Elementary in the summer of 2012. He described finding caskets
and bones and even little artifacts.
"They had their stuff in their caskets to travel with them on
their journey. It was really cool. There were tea cups, there were
plates, there was a little provision for the tea still in the cup.
One guy had his six-shooter in there."
Mason says they called the City
and Borough of Juneau (CBJ), who sent someone out to shut the
site down and begin researching the graves. State officials were
called, as was the Douglas
Indian Association, the modern name of the T'aaku Kwáan.
For years the DIA tried to get the CBJ to investigate the true
size of the cemetery, but nothing was ever done. Now bodies were
of the Tlingit Raven totem pole raised in front of Gastineau
Elementary School on May 13. The pole honors Tlingit ancestors
whose graves were discovered underneath the school in 2012.
The pole, designed by Tlingit master carver Nathan Jackson,
features beings from ancient clan stories. On the bottom (not
visible in the picture) is a woodworm and the woman who raised
it, taken from a Ganaxhteidi clan story. Above that is a frog,
signifying the Ganaxh.adi clan, above that a diving raven,
above that two baby ravens, and at the very top, another raven.
On the sides are a leader's staff, signifying the stamping
out of grief, a red coho signifying ancestral grandchildren,
a black dog salmon, and the Big Dipper. (photo courtesy Michael
Grief Process to Resume
The possessions found with the graves showed one important thing:
these people were loved. Relatives carefully buried them along with
items that might comfort them on their journey.
DIA tribal administrator Andrea Cadiente-Laiti remembers the
tribe's reaction when they received news of the discovery:
"It was a very difficult time for us, in that one of the things
that we came to grips with was that we had to transcend the anger
of generations," she said at a special blessing ceremony held at
the grave sites a month after they were discovered, as reported
by the Juneau
Empire. In fact, this isn't the first Native cemetery in the
area to be desecrated.
It Happened Once Before
Another Tlingit cemetery just across Gastineau Channel in Juneau
was desecrated and built-over in 1914. In her 2006 memoir, Blonde
Indian (University of Arizona Press), Alaska State Writer Laureate
Ernestine Hayes relates how homes were built over the original Juneau
Cemetery and Native graves were just dumped out on a hillside along
with the excavated dirt. A government official at the time quoted
an unnamed Tlingit woman whose poignant description of the desecration
could also apply today:
"White men crowd Natives out from the land on which their very
homes stand. Will they not even allow our dead to have a resting
carver Fred Fulmer Sr. stands by the Raven Pole he helped
carve. The pole was raised in front of Juneau's Gastineau
Elementary School on May 13. (photo cCourtesy Fred Fulmer)
A Plan for Two Totem Poles
To open a path for healing, the Native-owned Goldbelt
Heritage Foundation received a federal grant to fund "A Time
for Healing Ganéix Gaawú Kudzitee" a project
to create two memorial totem poles, the first a Raven Pole to honor
the ancestors whose graves were desecrated, which was raised on
May 13 in front of Gastineau Elementary School.
The second will be an Eagle Pole to promote healing from a 1962
incident in which the City of Douglas burned down the Douglas Indian
Village to make way for a boat harbor and a park. The families who
lived there were permanently displaced and received little or no
compensation. The Eagle Pole is scheduled to be carved next year.
Famed Tlingit totem pole artist and master carver Nathan
Jackson designed the Raven Pole to honor the Ghaanxh.ádi,
Ishkeetaan, and Kookhittaan clans of the T'aaku Kwáan all
of which are of the Raven moiety. The planned Eagle Pole will honor
the Yanyeidí, Tookhu.eidí, S'eetkhweidí and
Tsaateeneidí clans of the Eagle/Wolf moiety. Together, the
Raven and Eagle poles will honor all the clans of the T'aaku Kwáan
and will memorialize the ancestors and relatives who suffered the
callous racism of the old Douglas city government.
Lead carver Mick Beasley took Jackson's design and applied it
to a 26-foot red cedar log donated by the Alaska Native Corporation
Sealaska. He supervised a
crew of four carvers, mentor carver Fred Fulmer and apprentice carvers
Herb Sheakley, Jeffrey Isturis and Elijah Marks.
master carver Nathan Jackson of the Lukaax_.ádi clan,
inspects the Raven pole he designed. Patty McNeil, a Juneau
educator and Jackson's cousin of the Da?l'aweidí clan,
stands beside him. The photo was taken last fall when the
pole was still being carved at Harborview Elementary School
in Juneau, Alaska. It was raised on May 13 in front of Gastineau
Elementary School to honor Tlingit ancestors whose forgotten
graves were discovered during a 2012 renovation. (photo courtesy
The Music of Totem Poles
In a powerfully moving video recorded at the Sealaska Heritage
Institute Walter Soboleff Building the evening of the Raven Pole
raising, Lyle James of the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation honors the
carvers for creating the pole, which he calls grandpa:
"It's the handiwork of these men who stand before us and other
men who weren't able to make it here this evening. It's because
of them that we get to see our grandpa standing proud. It's because
of them that we get to hear our stories for generations to come.
It's because of them
we're going to make them damn proud tonight!"
James invites those assembled to dance and sing an ancient clan
song. Families dance wearing precious regalia as drums beat, heads
shake and bodies whirl. Mentor carver Fred Fulmer Sr., an Eagle
of the Chookaneidi, Iceberg House, was inspired to carve by his
great-grandfather, master carver Frank Sinclair Sr. and was first
taught carving by his clan uncle Ray Nielsen Sr. He spins and jumps
as if the dance of his relatives were moving through him in a timeless
ocean of past, present and future.
To those present, the totem pole standing across the channel
in Douglas also sang. But instead of musical tones, the song of
the totem pole was expressed by many different actions, in particular
the Tlingit eyes that found the graves, the Tlingit mind that designed
the pole, the Tlingit hands that carved it, and the Tlingit hearts
that remember the ancestors and now welcome them home.
This is the music of culture, not just a set of designs and
traditions, but instead a living thing that heals and strengthens.
When the Tlingit of the T'aaku Kwáan look at the Raven Pole,
this is the music they hear, the music of totem poles.