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January/February 2010

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George J. Bennett, Sr., Honors Veterans By Carving Totem Poles


Tlingit legend has it that the ancestors traveled a passage under the glaciers, possibly along the Taku or Stikine Rivers, from what is now British Columbia to the southeast Alaska coast. There they entered into a land of spectacular beauty.

Vast, impenetrable forests of red cedar, hemlock, spruce, and fir crowded the shore and wrapped the snow-capped mountains. Tumbling, frigid rivers supported five varieties of salmon, and in the woods were vast populations of deer, beaver, bear, and many other mammals and birds.

Stretched before them was the endless vastness of the sea. In fact, the sea was all around them; it had cut vast fjords and sliced islands all along the coast. The Tlingit people became as adept at sea as on land. In their carved boats, they shared the seas with abundant wildlife, including seals and whales.

They knew this was a holy land, and they treated it with wonder and respect. Because the animals had souls and were counted among their ancestors, hunting was also a spiritual quest.

It was a temperate and beautiful land, but subject to long spells of rain. Sometimes, the crystalline sky could shatter under the weight of fast-moving thunderheads. Owls stuttered a dirge at night, ravens alternately mocked and teased them, and eagles showed them the most refined fisher’s art.

The Tlingit and the other tribes of the area settled into small communities. They acquired wealth and took pleasure in making displays of their prosperity. It was an easy mantle to wear: The region was so rich that wealth was not difficult to accumulate as long as a deep respect was maintained for the fecundity of the land.

“It was God’s country,” George J. Bennett, Sr., said with a happy mixture of pride and awe. But then he was called away to the furthest edge of the Pacific.


In 1966, he was drafted into the Army, with basic and AIT at Ft. Ord from December 1966 to March 1967, and later assigned to Ft. Sill. In October 1968, he shipped out to Vietnam and eventually to Dau Tieng, home of the 3rd Brigade of the 2/12th Inf., 25th Inf. Div, where he became a radio operator. Like most Alaska natives, he had never heard of Vietnam. Bennett went as a soldier, he said, to protect his land, his tribe, his clan, and family. He came home with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He lived in Fairbanks and Anchorage, where he married and raised a family. Then, after nearly thirty years, he returned to Sitka.

The war and the intervening thirty years had changed him. Time, he discovered, had changed the villages of southeast Alaska as well. Ranging in population from 450-8,500, they had evolved into miniature cities in the information age. Computers were everywhere, advanced degrees common, and many people owned their own businesses. And although Tlingit culture was on the rebound, the native language was falling into disuse.

A full-blooded Tlingit—one of the seven tribes of Alaska—Bennett nonetheless felt adrift.

“I began to get back in touch with my culture,” he said. “I started working with some master carvers to begin the learning process of making cultural items. Then recently, at the insistence of my younger son, we started to carve totem poles, with a lot of traditional idealism involved.”

Totem poles had been the most highly developed artistic expression of the native peoples of the coastal areas of British Columbia and southeast Alaska. They are, in fact, one of mankind’s great cultural achievements. And, in a sense, the totems’ most glorious development and their ultimate dissolution and decay resulted from contact with the outside world. Although the popular imagination associates totem poles with Native Americans in general, they are only part of the culture of those who live along the Inside Passage.

Anthropologist Edward Malin described the totem poles of the Haida people, who lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands. He wrote that they “invite careful scrutiny because of the insights they provide: the handling of light and shadow, mass, volume, contrasting dimensions, symbolism. These elements, formal and representational, were effectively orchestrated into a structural symphony. Elements were not allowed to jar the eye but flow in a natural pattern. The representations of the symbols employed were required to be aesthetic, and representations acceptable to the people in reflecting the ties with past traditional values. Yet they also had to be distinctly original to evoke powerful responses regardless of the audience.”

Totem poles varied from village to village and from tribe to tribe in terms of function, height, subject matter and depiction, use of paint, and degree of carving. Some were carved as memorials or were mortuary totems in which the deceased’s remains were placed in a box on the top or in a carved-out area at the base of the totem. Others, used in the construction of large clan houses, supported the massive center roof beams. Best known, perhaps, are the heraldic and story-telling totems that display a clan’s crests, relate legendary history, or tell stories. Sometimes, even, they commemorate news, quarrels, or unpaid debts.

“First and foremost, they are what their creators intended them to be: clan status symbols and heraldic artwork,” Bennett said. He added that “it wasn’t that long ago that we finally acquired a written language. The carvings and symbols were the only way we could communicate our history, as well as preserve it.” There was, however, a strong oral tradition, and totem poles provided the illustrations.

Almost always, there was a rich profusion of animals. Although ravens, eagles, thunderbirds, grizzly bears, wolves, beavers, and frogs were most often displayed, they could be joined by water creatures such as whales and salmon and even octopus, land animals such as mountain goats and otters, and sky creatures such as cranes, cormorants, and even mosquitoes.

But the animals were more than they seemed. “The most commonly depicted creatures,” Malin noted, “were in themselves symbols of tribal lineages, clans, or even larger units.” Each family, in fact, had to have rights to the use of those symbols, rights that were acknowledged and sanctioned by their neighbors. The Tlingits are divided into Wolves (or Eagles) and Ravens.

The animals were more than they seemed. The totems most often referred to a legendary past and reflected a search for one’s place in that universe. The animals were also ancestors. All creatures were on equal footing with humans, and in the past “animals and birds were considered by the people to have human counterparts. There were killer whale people, grizzly bear people, wolf people, even salmon people.”

Further, the animals were capable of transforming themselves. They could change into humans or turn themselves into sea creatures or fly into the sky. When illustrating a particular tale, a totem pole may depict a grizzly bear with fins or an eagle with a human face and fingers. Sometimes the body parts would be so interchanged that only a cipher remained—the eagle’s hooked beak, the beaver’s cross-hatched tail, or the grizzly’s toothy short snout—to positively identify the creature.

Raven was the ultimate master of transformation. “Raven created man,” Viola Garfield and Linn Forrest wrote, “brought daylight, arranged the rivers and lakes, and indulged his fondness for adventure.” He was very much a trickster god, traveling the earth with a sense of humor and mischief, changing shape willy-nilly to complicate plots. Once he even changed himself into a hemlock needle in a glass of water so that when the unsuspecting princess swallowed the hemlock, Raven impregnated her.

“He dived beneath the ocean, lived in a whale, or ascended the skies merely by willing to do so,” they wrote. “Raven is therefore depicted in each instance according to his role in the legend that is illustrated. However, since he frequently appeared in bird form, the carvers selected his straight beak as the special mark by which he may be distinguished.”

Most commonly, totem poles were carved from Western red cedar, which has long preservative powers and cuts straight. Further north, where red cedar was not as common, yellow cedar was also used. The Queen Charlotte Islands, home of the Haida, had the most rain and, hence, the tallest trees. It was not unusual for Haida totems to tower over 65 feet, while Tlingit totems rarely surpassed 30.

The patron who commissioned the pole was responsible for providing the tree. It had to be straight, free of disease, and with a minimum of knots. The densest part of the forest had mature trees with the fewest knots, and it was in the patron’s interest to provide the best tree.

Once the bark was removed and the trunk trimmed, a string was run from top to bottom and a charcoal line drawn down the length of the trunk. Totem poles present mirror images, with the right side duplicating the left.

But first the artist would spend long hours with his patron, discussing the family crests, learning the family’s history and lineage, and acquainting himself with every detail of the stories he had been commissioned to illustrate. A perfect totem depended upon perfect communication between patron and artist. Errors in interpretation could offend or insult those the patron intended to impress or overwhelm.

Afterward, the artist would sketch in charcoal his realization of the patron’s vision. This sketch on the tree trunk might be reworked again and again. Artist and patron might continue to have clarifying conversations during the many months it took to carve the totem pole.

The original tools used by the artists were simple. Stone adzes—essentially a wooden handle with a sharpened stone—were used for the trimming and the original rough cuts. Smaller elbow adzes—named for the handle’s distinctive shape—were employed for more refined carving. Finally, details were carved with small knives and chisels with blades made of beaver teeth, shells, or the sharp edges of small stones.

All that changed in the late 1700s with the arrival of Russian fur traders and, later, the Americans and Canadians. With the acquisition of metal cutting tools, totem pole carving flowered. Speed and accuracy increased drastically. At the same time, designs became more daring, more refined, and more complex.

The fur trade brought unimagined wealth to the indigenous peoples—wealth such as these nonagricultural societies based on hunting and gathering had never known. With this new-found wealth, the native people felt they needed (like Renaissance Europeans) to ostentatiously display their wealth through art. The heraldic totem pole reached its zenith. Never had the totems been more beautiful or grand.

Then, just as abruptly as it had blossomed, the culture and its totem poles withered. Vast numbers of native peoples contracted diseases for which they had no immunity. Smallpox wiped out as much as three-quarters of some villages. Venereal disease raced through the population.

Missionaries mistakenly perceived totem poles as a form of pagan worship and insisted they be destroyed. American and Canadian government officials were less concerned about their religious significance; they saw the poles as a visual impediment to an official policy of assimilation. And everything was undermined by the simple pursuit of money.

“The insidious, almost insensible nature of the destruction wrought by Europeans is remarkable,” Malin wrote. “There were no massacres or overt efforts to destroy the people—just a quiet undermining of life both physical and psychic by subtle, scarcely noticed forces.”

The Canadian prohibition of the potlatch—the ceremony of feasting and distributing gifts that was an integral part of raising the totem pole—put an end to totem pole carving. Only in the last few decades has the art of carving in general and totem poles in particular enjoyed a revival.

VVA member George Bennett is part of that revival.

“When my son and I carve, depending on who we are carving for, we try to stay within the Tlingit culture as far as design work,” he said. “If it is contemporary, we still use Tlingit-style artwork, including drawing and paint colors. Sure, we will work alone on our own projects, but on larger ones we carve together.”

Bennett has used his art to honor veterans. He and his sons have carved two totem poles that honor those Alaskans who served their country.

The smaller one stands in Juneau at the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Memorial Park. It was created “to honor all those veterans who are no longer with us, and for their service,” Bennett said. The pole was donated to the Southeast Native Veterans Association, and there was a dedication ceremony when the pole was raised.

“The pole has the Eagle and Raven,” he said, “that represent all the native tribes of southeast Alaska.” These two guardians stand on a bentwood box that represents the names of soldiers lost in battle.

Carved from yellow cedar, the six-foot pole took about five months to carve. Bennett was assisted by his sons and a few friends who “added their touches.” When the pole was completed, there was a traditional Tlingit pole-raising ceremony, complete with singing, dancing, and speeches. Afterward, all the attending veterans were invited to a luncheon sponsored by the Tlingit and Haida Central Council of Alaska.

The larger 15-foot pole was commissioned by the Alaska National Guard after a long selection process. “I think the fact I was a veteran helped me get the commission,” Bennett said. Finally, the Guard announced its $25,000 award for the creation of a totem pole to be placed outside its headquarters.

“This pole,” Bennett explained, “has figures on it that represent each region of Alaska, to honor all those who served in the Alaska National Guard. The figures actually represent all the Alaska native tribes and includes the non-native tribes.” Both poles, Bennett said, are best described as honor poles.

The National Guard pole posed particular design problems because it used figures not commonly depicted in traditional poles. Bennett and his son James, who was the lead carver, spent ten months carving the red cedar trunk.


When this honor pole was raised at Ft. Richardson, “there was a simple dedication ceremony,” Bennett said, “with speeches and some dancing by local native dance groups.”

The isolated, sea-facing villages that made up the Tlingit Nation and its neighbors were saturated in art. Both the exteriors and interiors of the huge clan houses were richly embellished. Implements and utensils—both those for ordinary use and those of ceremonial importance such as masks—were painted, carved, or both. Although derived from nature, their art was highly stylized and intellectual. Though the imagery was often fantastical, the execution was formal, exquisite, almost calligraphic.

Traditionally, totems are not maintained. Their importance derives from the status of their creation and from the expansive grandeur of the potlatches that accompanied their dedication. Afterward, they simply exist and are expected, like all things, eventually to rot.

“Guests from other villages were invited, and the pole was set up and dedicated in a complex ceremony,” Garfield and Forrest noted. “During the potlatch, the owners recounted the tales symbolized in the carvings. The tales were not mere narratives. They were often presented in dramatic form by costumed actors who dramatized, danced, and sang parts of the stories. Guests were entertained, feasted, and presented with gifts.”

Wealth, abundance, and generosity were admired, not the careful saving and preservation values of the introduced populations. “Northwest Coast culture was founded on the extraordinary abundance of resources,” Malin wrote. “From these resources a life style developed of conspicuous consumption. The people worked to acquire their wealth and in turn gave away that wealth in acts of public magnanimity to raise their social status. Resources and wealth were not something to be ‘saved’ in the Western sense. If the people observed traditional safeguards—restraint, proper propitiatory ceremonies, rituals—the resources on which their wealth depended would renew themselves. Then new poles would be carved and raised.”

But once the pole is raised, its job is done. Most poles, facing the elements, last about a half century. Some have stood as long as seventy-five years. Century-old totems are usually rotted beyond repair. They are haggard, devoid of any paint, and stripped of any extraneous ornamentation.

“The native pigments were from mineral sources,” Garfield and Forrest wrote. “Ochre furnished various shades of red, brown, and yellow; a copper-impregnated clay yielded a highly prized bluish-green; and manganese derivatives and graphite provided black. Occasionally white, obtained from baked clam shells, was also used. These were the only colors.”

Commercial paints broadly expanded the artist’s palette, and they were incorporated into totem pole designs in different ways by different villages and tribes. But while many of these “modern pieces catch the eye,” they wrote, “they lack the more subtle appeal of the texture of evenly adzed wood weathered to the tint of rich pewter in the sunlight and blending with the purple and grey of lichens in the rain.”

VVA member George Bennett can be reached by email at




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