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Haida artist TJ Young is carving a new totem pole that will go up in downtown Juneau

Haida carver TJ Young carves on a log that will eventually be a totem pole installed at the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Arts Campus in downtown Juneau, Alaska on Feb. 22, 2022. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini/KTOO)

A new totem pole is being carved in Juneau to represent the Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian tribes of Southeast Alaska. The carver is Haida artist TJ Young, and the pole will be installed at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Arts Campus.
Young is working on carving the pole, chipping away at a massive log. Small, curled wood chips pile up on the floor. Some of it is still uncarved, but there are figures emerging along most of the pole.

Most totem poles are carved on one side, but this one is carved on both sides. They’re calling it a 3-D totem pole, and it’s a lot more work.

This pole is 22 feet tall and almost four feet wide at the base. Young said it normally takes him three to four months to carve a one-sided totem pole. But for this project, he’s six months in and still has a couple of months to go.

“Yeah it’s been challenging, it’s been the most time-consuming project I’ve ever worked on but I think it’ll be worth it,” Young said. “And I think it’ll represent all of us. Not just my family or my clan or my nation even. It’s representing all three of us.”

Since the totem pole represents the Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian, Young said he only included elements onto the pole that all three tribes have in common. At the base of the pole, there is the man holding up the world. A little further up is the Strongman.

“He’s in there ripping a sea lion in half. It’s just a little glimpse of the story. It’s a long story,” Young said.

There’s also salmon, the sun, the moon, the stars, Eagle on one side and Raven on the other for balance. And on the top of the pole there are three figures representing the Lingít, Haida and Tsimshian nations.

Young is Haida from Hydaburg and has been carving for over 20 years now. He said he and his brother grew up idolizing master carvers like Robert Davidson, Bill Reid and Jim Hart. He and his brother started carving right around the same time.

“He got a set of tools. I got jealous, so I got a set of tools,” Young said.

TJ Young’s brother Joe Young helped carve this pole, and Greg Frisby and Andrea Cook will help with the painting.

Young said the process of carving totem poles includes the whole community, especially when he is home in Hydaburg where the carving shed is like a community center.

“It was definitely a spot where people would come in and visit and share stories, even help on the pole,” Young said. “We have some younger kids coming and helping out.”

It’s the same when they raise totem poles too.

“Everyone’s holding the rope. They just want to feel like they’re a part of it,” Young said. “And it goes up easy if we all help out.”

Installing this pole will be different because it will be carved on both sides. There won’t be any ropes or pulling. Young said this pole will be lowered onto a metal pole facing Seward Street, and it will be more like an unveiling.

He doesn’t know when the totem pole will be unveiled. Right now he’s focused on getting the pole done before his deadline in mid-May.

Editor’s note: Reporter Lyndsey Brollini previously worked at Sealaska Heritage Institute.