Saxman totem poles get facelift

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

SAXMAN The Chief Ebbits totem pole in Saxman was surrounded by scaffolding as Marshall Smith and Andrew Kahklen repainted a wolf figure halfway up.

After years of storytelling, the pole is getting a facelift.

The pole is one of several in the Saxman Totem Park that will be refurbished this summer. Vice Mayor Gilbert Benge said age, wind and weather are taking a toll.

''If you would have seen the bear on the top of the Ebbits pole (before the work started) you would have seen trees, it looked like, growing out it,'' he said.

The Ebbits pole also is called the dogfish pole. Workers have finished restoring two eagle-beaver poles at the top of Totem Row and were measuring a third eagle-beaver pole earlier this month for protective copper caps.

The raven pole near the tribal house is another worry. One of the wings on the top of the pole is loose and needs attention, he said.

Thousands of tourists visit Saxman's poles each year, but the park also is important to local residents. Children hunt for Easter eggs among the totems each spring, and potlucks, weddings and meetings are held inside the tribal house.

Benge, who is overseeing work at the park, said he has been consulting with carver Nathan Jackson about the project.

''I'm trying to keep it like the artist originally did it,'' Benge said.

In 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps moved totem poles from Southeast Alaska villages and set up totem parks such as the one in Saxman.

Donald Beck, whose father and grandfather were part of the CCC, is the lead man on the totem restoration project.

''There's a lot of patchwork on that pole from the CCCs,'' he said, pointing to the back of the Ebbits pole. The pole, which came from Tongass village, was patched and restored by the CCC.

A new bear was carved and the tails and fins of the dogfish were replaced and repainted, according the book ''The Wolf and the Raven: Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska'' by Viola Garfield and Linn Forrest.

Beck also led a crew that refurbished the President Lincoln pole in Saxman a couple of years ago. Some people have commented the new paint is too dark, but the colors will fade in time, he said.

''See the bottom of that? It's lightened up already,'' Beck pointing to the base of the Lincoln pole. ''A lot of people will complain, 'You've got to change your colors.' Well, in a year or two, they'll fade and look natural again.''

The Lincoln pole was in poor condition when it was taken to Saxman in 1938, so a copy was made for the totem park and the original was sent to the territorial museum in Juneau, according to ''The Wolf and the Raven.''

To refurbish the poles, Beck's crew starts by cleaning the surface with plastic scrub brushes, soap and water. A borate powder which acts as an insecticide, fungicide and preservative is added and workers repaint the surface. Finally, a coating of protective sealant is applied.

Bugs are a big threat, Beck said, pointing to worm holes in the back of one pole.

The city of Saxman received three state grants for this year's repairs $200,000 for the totem pole restoration, $55,900 for the Saxman Tribal House and $16,400 for the Edwin C. DeWitt Carving Center. The city has applied for additional money to replace the four entry poles that flank the stairs at the bottom of the square, Benge said.

''Two years ago we did major cleaning on a few of them,'' City Clerk Nora DeWitt said. ''But we've only been able to tackle a few poles at a time because of funding. This is the first major cleaning and repair on the wings and beaks we're undertaking.''

Work started April 5. Mayor Dan Williams said workers will fix and refurbish as many poles as possible before the money runs out.

Workers also are cleaning and repainting the outside of the tribal house. The tribal house was built in the mid-1980s.

''We're in search of shakes for the roof,'' Benge said. ''We want to replace a lot of the shakes that are up there. We're also putting rock next to the bottom to keep plants and moisture away from the wood.''

The carving center will be cleaned and get a new coat of preservative. Some roof shakes also will be replaced, Benge said.

He expects work on the totem poles to continue through the summer.

Joanna Markell is a reporter for the Ketchikan Daily News.

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