Hands-on learing: Carving project highlights modern aspects of apprenticeship tradition

When Haida carvers Joe and TJ Young were teenagers in Hydaburg 20 years ago, apprenticeship opportunities there were scarce. To learn the basics of carving and design, they built on carpentry skills learned in high school and cultural knowledge passed on from their grandfather, Claude Morrison. The rest they picked up wherever they could.


“Most recently, I apprenticed with Robert Davidson, but before that we kind of did a lot of it on our own,” TJ Young said. “We never really got to apprentice under anyone. It would have been nice. It was trial and error for a long time, but we’re starting to understand a few things and learn from our mistakes.”

Now in their mid-30s, with several major projects under their belts including the Eagle Pole at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, the Yaadaas Crest Pole at Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, and a house post at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, the brothers have already reached a point where they can lead apprenticeships of their own. For their current project, the second of two poles for the Gajaa Hit building in downtown Juneau, they have taken on three apprentices.

TJ Young said taking part in the longstanding tradition of knowledge transfer through an apprenticeship is an important aspect of the project.

“It definitely helps out to have more hands on the pole, but it is a really crucial part of the culture, the system of having apprentices in order to keep the art progressing,” Young said.

The Gajaa Hit totem pole project, a collaboration between Sealaska Heritage Institute and the Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority, highlights the speed with which the apprenticeship tradition has regained its strength in Southeast Alaska, and the adaptability of the relationship as it has evolved to suit the needs of modern artists. Traditionally, knowledge was handed down from one generation to the next, but two of the three apprentices on the Gajaa Hit project are of the Young brothers’ generation: Jerrod Galanin, 37, of Sitka, and Josh Yates, 32, of Juneau. A third apprentice, who will start later this month, Tai’-Rel Osh Lang-Edenshaw of Hydaburg, is 18.

The Raven and Eagle pole and house screen the team are creating will replace existing pieces on the Gajaa Hit site on Willoughby Avenue next to the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. The original 26-foot poles, carved by Tommy Jimmie, Ed Kunz Jr., Ed Kunz Sr. and William Smith, are being removed due to concerns about their structural integrity.

In learning from the Youngs, the three apprentices are also indirectly learning from renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson, with whom TJ Young studied beginning in 2011. Davidson, who grew up in Masset at a time when totem carving was dangerously rare, apprenticed with Bill Reid, one of the most influential Northwest Coast artists of the 20th century.

Though traditional apprenticeships were most often carried out within the carver’s own community or family, modern apprenticeships tend to be more wide-ranging, reflective of the collaborative spirit between Northwest Coast artists. Gajaa Hit apprentice Galanin, for example, is Tlingit and Aleut. The Youngs are Haida.

“A lot of us are friends, and just being in that community of carving and Northwest Coast art, it’s like a family,” TJ Young said. “You may be doing different styles but you’re still heading toward one thing, learning more about who we are, who you want to be as an artist, as a person. It’s not so much Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, it’s more like a fraternity of Northwest Coast artists — or not even artists, just people, friends, family.”

This community vibe is apparent on a small scale in the Gajaa Hit carving tent, where the team is currently working. Apprentice Yates, who has known the Youngs since childhood, worked on the Raven pole in 2013 but still spends time in the tent to check in on the Eagle pole currently underway. On Friday, he was quietly working on a skateboard design as the carvers worked, asking TJ Young’s opinion on his piece from time to time.

Galanin, who is currently the primary carving apprentice for the Eagle pole, said he hadn’t met the Youngs before the totem project but knew of and respected their work. Though new to totem pole carving, he is an established artist himself who works in many mediums, including jewelry making, skin sewing, painting and installation sculpture. He was nervous about approaching this new art form at first but said he was loosening up.

“It’s an amazing opportunity. I feel very blessed to have been selected,” he said. “It’s really great working with Joe and TJ — not only learning about the process and working with some of the tools, but just their take on the art and how to be as an artist. I feel like I’m trying to absorb as much as I can.”

Galanin also brings a background in wooden boat building to the project.

“Learning the patience as a shipwright transfers over to this beautifully,” he said. “Seems like every experience I’ve had has led up to this.”

Galanin grew up in Sitka, learning from his father David Galanin and uncle William Burkhart, among others. Like the Youngs, Galanin and his brother, Nick, are powerful forces among the younger generation of Northwest Coast artists, creating art that is reflective of both tradition and innovation. The Galanin brothers, who are next door neighbors in Sitka, create work independently and together as Leonard Getinthecar and operate a gallery in Sitka called Devilfish.

“Our garages are right next to each other and we just set them up as different (creative spaces),” Jerrod Galanin said. “At night, we might sew some sea otter, or we might work on an installation piece or whatever it might be.”

This year, both Galanin brothers and their father all received Rasmuson Individual Artist Awards to pursue their art, the first time in Rasmuson history that three awards have gone to members of the same family.

TJ Young said Galanin has been doing a great job so far, asking lots of questions and even investing in his own set of tools.

“We could tell he’s really serious about taking it to the next level, so we’re excited about that,” Young said.

Despite having three apprentices, the Youngs consider themselves “head” carvers, not “master” carvers. The title of master carver is a long way down the road, Young said.

“It’s something to strive for in the future, but definitely not now or anytime soon,” he said.

The replacement poles the team is creating are not replicas of the 1977 poles but share some of the same figures, determined by local elders. The Eagle pole, from the bottom to the top, shows a bear, a killer whale biting the bear, a wolf biting the killer whale’s tail, a shark and an eagle. The Raven pole shows Lady Luck holding a baby, a dog fish, a human holding a tinaa (copper shield) riding the dog fish, and a raven.

Together the poles honor Raven and Eagle clans of the Aak’w Kwáan Tlingit. The land where the Gajaa Hit building stands was traditionally used as a Tlingit summer fish camp. The building was constructed in the 1970s as a community center, and in 2000, Tlingit elder Cecilia Kunz renamed it Gajaa Hit, or “safe place to land.”