September 12, 2013 | Vol. 39, No. 37

Totem craftsmen clean and preserve poles

Tlingit carver and wood conservator Tommy Joseph and his son Joe Joseph are cleaning debris off and weather-guarding the pair of totem poles in town.

Kyle Clayton / Petersburg Pilot
Tommy Joseph is in town to clean and preserve the totem poles he carved 14 years ago.

Tommy, who crafted the totems 14 years ago, and Joe are in Petersburg from Sitka. They’ve been strapped onto scaffolding and scrubbing off algae, moss and lichen that’s been accumulating on the 35-foot totem poles for nearly 14 years. Tommy credits his son for much of the work.

“Heights are really not my thing,” Tommy said. “I’ve never been on a five-story scaffolding before. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do yesterday that’s for sure. He (Joe) seems to be doing a lot better at it than me.”

Each totem represents different clans that live in the area. The pole closest to Haugen Drive represents the Raven Clan and its sub groups—symbolized by figures of a sea pigeon and salmon as well as carvings of a canoe, a human face and Devil’s Thumb which represent the great migration of the Tlingit peoples into Southeast Alaska.

“And we have raven on top that’s currently covered with moss lichen and algae so much that you can almost not see all the details,” Tommy said.

The other pole signifies the Eagle Clan. It’s sub groups are symbolized by split killer whales with a seal on the tail, a thunderbird, a shark and a wolf.

If the poles were left alone for too long, Tommy said, spruce and hemlock trees could start growing out of the moss.

The pair will also install a lead cap on the end grain at the top of the poles. The minerals in the material will leech out and protect the wood. They will also apply paraffin oil to both poles.

Other totems tell stories about a group or event. The base, being the most prominent position, is the structure of the story that holds up the rest of the story on a pole.

Positions of the carvings on poles like the one the Josephs are cleaning don’t matter as much.

“It’s not one over the other,” Tommy said. “The clans are all equal to each other.”

Tommy has been carving wood since 1972. While in the third grade he carved a wooden halibut hook.

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