Most people know that totem poles, the signature artwork of Northwest coastal tribes, use imagery to tell stories. But few among us can grasp the story’s meaning, feel the deep inspiration of the carver – or even know where to start reading the tale.
Case in point: Tsimshian carver David Boxley’s latest vertical masterpiece, a majestic, 27-foot totem raised this spring at the entrance to Northwest Hospital in the Northgate area to honor the life of his recently departed sister-in-law, Cindy Sue James – and the loving care afforded to her there by hospital staff during her final days.
It’s logical to assume that the figure at the pole’s apex – in this case, a broad-winged eagle, representing the eagle clan of the Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska – is the primary inspiration behind the painstaking work to convert an old-growth log to a work of art. It’s true to an extent; James died from uterine cancer, and the pole is a tribute to her bravery.
But Northwest coastal tribal tradition is more nuanced.
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Before speaking at the ceremonial dedication of the pole, dubbed “Eagle’s Spirit,” in early May, Debora Juarez, a Puyallup native, current Seattle City Council member and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, contacted Puget Sound tribal leaders to collect their impressions of Boxley’s design. One of them, Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby, told her that understanding the pole’s iconography required turning nonnative cultural norms upside-down.
“Leaders, women, are always at the bottom of a totem pole – holding the people up,” Cladoosby told her. Other tribal leaders echoed the sentiment, noting that the Eurocentric interpretation of someone “at the bottom of the totem pole” carries a derogatory meaning.
Not so in the minds of carvers, past or present. Boxley, one of the most active and honored totem pole-carvers alive, said he placed his sister-in-law exactly where she belonged: as a literal foundation for her family and people.
This is why “Eagle’s Spirit” is anchored to Mother Earth by a representation of James. The “signature dimples” on the carved figurine give a hint of her effervescence to visitors and patients at the hospital that James believed deserved honor for its treatment of the suffering and the disabled – particularly those struck by cancer.
In her stylized depiction on the pole, Boxley has left James, a local accountant, standing in immortality securely but tenderly clutching the shoulders of her grandson, Dominic, 7, “the light of her life, from the day he was born.”
Boxley placed his relative – a longtime dear friend, fellow tribal dancer and enthusiastic warrior in the battle to preserve the threatened north coast tribal culture of the Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit — at the pole’s base because she was a bedrock for her people.
“She was the glue around her family,” Boxley says. “She was really strong.”
Boxley’s medium is the Western red cedar, the cloud-scraping green sentinel tree that housed and clothed his ancestors, and still provides what many consider spiritual solitude to those lucky enough to enter the ethereal, mossy domains of the last stands of the coastal giants from Oregon to Southeast Alaska. When the tree’s flesh – a fragrant, fibrous wood with the hue of a sockeye and legendary weatherproof longevity – is cut, pushed, prodded, willed and shaped over many months into a totem, the resulting pole will keep telling its story for centuries.
James deserved all of that, Boxley says. But the totem is unique in that it sprung from her own imagination – a spark of creative light during her darkest hours intended to bring meaning to the suffering endured by cancer victims and their families.
In countless visits to the hospital following her first cancer diagnosis, James and her sister Michelle – or other members of a family that seemed constantly by her side – passed by an aging totem pole that has stood for four decades at the old entrance to Northwest, part of UW Medicine.
One day James, whose forceful personality was legend, took aside her favorite nurse and blurted: “You guys ought to get rid of that ugly totem pole,” Boxley recalls. “She said, ‘You should make a new one to honor all the cancer patients who have come through this hospital. And I know who could do the work: my brother-in-law.’
“One thing led to another,” Boxley says. “I did a drawing (of his concept for the pole); took it to Cindy; and she approved every bit of it, even planned a good deal of what’s going to happen (at the pole’s dedication).”
The pole combines tribal tradition with modern symbolism related to suffering, curing and healing. To Boxley, steeped in the often-painful modern history of his people, particularly the devastating epidemics after European contact, it is a fitting blend.
The pole’s top figure represents the family’s clan, the Eagle, or Laxskiik, of the Tsimshian Nation. The next figure down, a shaman wearing a colorful bear-claw headdress and holding a rattle and mortar and pestle, represents doctors and caregivers battling cancer — and giving comfort to those who, like James, prove incurable.
The center figures on the pole represent past, present and future cancer patients. On either side of the bentwood box upon which they sit are memorial ribbons honoring victims of cancer. From the center peeks a diminutive figure — “Mouse Woman,” James’ identity in her many years of tribal dancing with Boxley’s Git-Hoan Dance group, which has traveled the world to celebrate tribal culture.
At the base of the pole is James herself, holding her grandson, her face and features carved by Boxley’s son, David Robert, also a skilled tribal artist. It is, in totem pole terms, a remarkable likeness, Boxley says.
Boxley’s trademark poles grace the Smithsonian Institution, Epcot at Disney World in Florida, the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, and other public and private spaces. Carving one takes months; the completed product usually sells for $100,000 to $120,000 – “basically $4,000 a foot,” Boxley says. (The Northwest Hospital pole was financed largely through donations.)
As an active carver in his prime, with his work in demand, Boxley rarely finds himself without a commission. “I’ve probably carved more poles than almost anyone alive,” he says, without a hint of boasting. It is his life, yet just one part of his mission that reaches far beyond simple wood chips on his garage floor.
Like many other native artists, Boxley, through his work, hopes to send forth noticeable ripples against the tide of cultural destruction endured by his people. Every pole, artistic mask, song or dance, wall hanging or other work of art he produces serves as a small thread of a rope that, with a bit of luck, might hold his kin together.
The totem pole that honors his sister-in-law will stand as a proud reminder, he says, not just to her, but to what she represented: James, through her dancing and songs, was a kindred spirit in that quest. Key to that effort is the passing on of the tribe’s language, which Boxley says is threatened with extinction, with only about four dozen active speakers, mostly elders.
During the ceremony, tears were shed, laughs unleashed and family traditions honored. In one ceremonial dance at the pole’s base, the lead part of Eagle was played by James’ grandson Dominic, depicted on the pole standing just feet away.
As seats placed for the dedication were cleared away, the repurposed red cedar stood in its reborn state: tall, proud and alone, a graceful lasting monument to a woman’s spirit, a people’s resolve and the gift of an artist touched by both.
No matter how it is read, or by whom, the message of the totem, summarized by the leader of one of the visiting clans who came to honor James, should be clear:
“You are not alone. We are here with you. Stand strong.”