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Alaskan Indian woodcarver revives extinct totem art

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Media captionDavid Boxley had to learn the craft of totem pole carving by visiting examples in museums and studying the ancient designs

World renowned artist David Boxley and his son are carving a Tsimshian Alaskan Indian totem pole for a prominent American museum. With no skilled artists alive to instruct him in the traditional craft, Boxley had to learn on his own.

The Tsimshian tell a myth.

A young boy was walking along a beach when he came across an eagle entangled in a fish net. He freed the eagle and it flew away.

The boy grew up to become the chief of his village, which was struck by a famine.

As he walked along the same beach wondering what to do, a salmon fell out of the sky and landed at his feet. He looked up and saw the eagle he had rescued years before.

"He didn't realize that the eagle was a nax-nox - in my language that means spirit guardian, a supernatural creature," says David Boxley, a master wood carver from the Tsimshian tribe of Alaska.

He is carving illustrations from the myth into a 22ft totem pole that he and his son are creating for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.

"The moral of the story is that one good turn deserves another."

Disappearing culture

The Tsimshians lived for centuries in the Canadian province of British Columbia. In the 1880s, several hundred families were led by a missionary to the Alaskan town of Metlakatla, where Boxley was born.

For many years he worked as a school teacher before realising his culture was disappearing and he needed to help it survive.

Totem pole carving was once a thriving tradition passed on through the generations, but when Boxley tried to learn the craft, nobody was alive to teach him.

He began researching the lost art, visiting museums that held examples of North-west Pacific carvings and studying the ancient designs.

"My mother's generation was punished for speaking their own language, sent off to boarding schools and made to feel ashamed of who they were," he says.

"I have to reach back, past my mother's generation to my grandfather's and even past that."

Image caption The Boxleys adopt traditional design and motifs - and use modern latex paint

He has carved about 70 totem poles over the last three decades, earning himself an international reputation.

"A totem pole is like a sign board that says: 'This is who lives here,'" he says.

"Even today people think these are religious icons and that our people worship them, which couldn't be further from the truth. They stood in front of a particular house and announced to visitors the history of this man, this family, this clan, this tribe."

Modern materials

The Smithsonian pole is made from the trunk of a 500-year-old red cedar tree.

Image caption The traditional tools of the trade

In addition to making totem polls, Tsimshians used the wood to fashion canoes, build houses and even weave the bark for clothes. Red, black and blue paint accent the carvings.

The Boxleys are forgoing the traditional pigments used by their ancestors - copper oxide and charcoal mixed with salmon eggs and fixed with urine. Instead, they use exterior latex paint.

"It's easier to go and buy latex and it lasts much longer in the elements," Boxley says.

While Boxley was forced to rediscover his heritage on his own, his own children have been born into a cultural revival.

"For the first time in more than a century there are Tsimshian people who know nothing else other to be Tsimshian," says David Robert Boxley, Boxley's 30-year-old son. He began carving at six.

"There used to be signs in Ketchikan, Alaska, [that said] no dogs or Indians allowed," the younger Boxley says.

"But my generation has never had to witness anything like that. It's ours again. If anything, we're closer to it than anybody has been in a very long time. It's exciting really. It's nice to belong to something so much bigger and older than yourself."

An uphill battle

Image caption Almost done: The totem pole will be on display in the museum's foyer

Despite his relative youth, David Robert Boxley is already a cultural leader of the Wolf Clan and writes traditional music with his father. No traditional musicians remained alive to instruct them, so like their art technique, they had to learn the musical skills on their own.

Now, they conduct regular dance performances using masks that they also make.

While the Boxleys are part of a wider revival of Native art and a resurgence of national interest in tribal cultures, most Native artists face an uphill battle, says Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

"Artists have always had it tough, but it's particularly tough in a Native community where economic opportunity is rare and the market for the art still tends to be rather limited," he says "Only a few are going to make it. It's a tough choice - it's a tough lifestyle."

The museum constantly rotates exhibits, but curators hope the Boxleys' totem pole at the building's entrance will form part of a permanent exhibition of iconic objects visitors will instantly recognise.

Image caption The raw materials: A 500-year-old red cedar trunk

"We're saying that here in the capital city of the United States of America there is a place for traditional native art," says Mr Gover.

"And to the extent any aspiring artist is out there wondering whether they should pursue it, we hope we're sending the signal that it's valuable, it's meaningful and we want it."

Most of the Native nations in the US have fewer than 1,500 citizens. David Boxley hopes his totem pole will raise public awareness of the lesser known Tsimshians.

"We are so proud of representing our people - it's not just my son and I and my family - it's our whole tribe," he says.

"They're watching us work on the webcam and seeing pictures on the website. They've been calling and emailing and saying how proud they are... and it chokes me up to know that."

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