Healing totem pole pays respect to Natives from boarding school era

The smell of cedar and the sounds of singing filled the garden behind the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage during the raising of a totem pole that symbolizes healing from the boarding school era decades ago.

More than 600 people gathered on Oct. 22 for the ceremony, raising Alaska's first totem pole dedicated to Alaska Natives who attended boarding schools operated by the federal government or religious orders, as well as their descendants and those who died during their time there.

"The idea behind it was to pay homage and respect to the generation that endured the boarding schools," said one of the carvers, TJ Sgwaayaans Young. "We wanted to depict more or less what those generations had to go through, and both the parents and the children."

The afternoon event started inside the Heritage Center where attendees - mostly elders - listened to prayers, remarks and traditional Dena'ina and Haida songs. A younger portion of the crowd watched a livestream of the event in a heated tent outside. The stream of people, many wearing Haida hats and other bright-colored traditional regalia, trickled to the carving shed outside - to the totem pole.

Two Haida artists and brothers, Joe Gidaawaan Young and TJ Sgwaayaans Young, started carving the pole back in May. They used Western red cedar that came from their home village of Hydaburg.

On the pole, a bear mother holds her two cubs tightly, while their father is depicted above in a human form. The children - now in their human form - are also carved in the ears of the raven, which is "showing them how to live in both worlds," TJ Young said.

For the carvers, the theme that the pole represents is personal: Their mother attended a boarding school and never talked about her experience, TJ Young said.

"We just tried to use this motivation, how resilient they were, how strong they were," he said. "If they didn't go through that, if they didn't make it through that, we wouldn't be here doing this."

Prior to starting the carving process, the brothers also talked to Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida Elder Norma Jean Dunne, who brought forth the concept of the pole. What they came to understand was that the boarding school experiences varied greatly between people, he said.

"Some were exposed to really, really unspeakable traumas, and then some met their childhood friends there, even their spouses there," he said. "The whole idea of the totem pole is to have ... a shared experience, good and bad, to acknowledge what happened and see what's next to try to move forward after all of this."

After blessing the totem pole, about 20 people lifted the almost 2,000-pound art piece and carried it to the healing garden.

"It seems heavy until you get 20 or 30 people, and those people really can use a couple of fingers," TJ Young said. "Just everybody is working together."

With the sun setting behind the garden, the pole was placed carefully on the ground, tucked with blankets and tied up with ropes. Women put beads at its base and brushed it with cedar branches. After more prayers and songs, the group attached the 20-foot-tall trunk to a crane and lifted it.

"It's not just a totem pole," Hydaburg Mayor Anthony Christianson said. "You're creating a center for healing."

The evening ceremony followed a listening session with U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on the trauma caused by Native boarding schools, held earlier that day in the Heritage Center. Haaland also participated in the ceremony.

"For those of you who shared your story, I want you to know that we're keeping it alive and we're passing it on to our (future) generations and you won't be forgotten," Charlene Aqpik Apok said during the raising ceremony. "All of that strength and resiliency is living inside of us. And all these beautiful children running around are carrying all that beauty, all of that strength and all of that healing."

Audrey Armstrong attended the listening session and the ceremony to honor the experience of her mother, who went to Holy Cross Mission. Armstrong said her mother was punished for speaking her Native Denaakk'e language, the only language she knew then, and spent many nights crying alone, with "nowhere to go, nobody to talk to."

"It broke her heart," Armstrong said.

For Armstrong, sharing her mother's experience and watching the totem pole raising was an important step in the process of coming to terms with her family's past.

"Telling our stories and what happened to our people generations ago, our ancestors and everything they suffered, and all the babies that we heard about the boarding school in Canada that were never accounted for - it's heart-wrenching," she said. "To me, being here is part of all of our healing. ... The way we heal is just always showing love to each other, no matter who you are, and also, always sharing our culture and being proud of it."

Daily News photographer Bill Roth contributed to this report.


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