Whether sifting through sand, or scrambling over a rocky shore, it's about finding treasures in every day. 

Nathan Jackson, Master Carver

Nathan Jackson makes some initial cuts in a cedar log.

Only 386 master artists in the United States have been honored with the National Heritage Fellowship award since 1982. Two of those artists live in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, near the southern end of Southeast Alaska.  Nathan Jackson is one of those two living treasures, working in Saxman Native Village, a few miles south of the city of Ketchikan. He was kind enough to talk to me and allowed me to take some photos to share with you.

 Nathan Jackson is a Chilkoot Tlingit, a master carver, metalsmith,  teacher, and fisherman.  His works are in collections worldwide, including over fifty totem poles, as well as many carved wooden masks, screens, and crests. Nathan also engraves  gold and silver pieces, forming them into jewelry.

Surrounded by works in progress, handmade carving tools and the aromatic scent of cedar, Nathan told me about the work going on in the Edwin DeWitt Carving Center. Reproductions of some of the older totem poles are being made, and there are new works, also.

The adze head is attached to a handle made from a natural bend in an alder.

 Nathan stresses that Alaska Native artists should understand and mind the traditional art form.

Traditional tools are used to create the works, but at times modern tools are utilized as well, to get the job done more efficiently.

The larger pieces such as totem poles are usually done in red cedar, and the smaller works are carved from yellow cedar and alder.

Nathan Jackson makes sure cuts with the chainsaw.

Chips fly as Nathan removes material with the adze.

Nathan talked about artists who are interested in creating Tlingit art. He said that they should carry a sketch pad, because being able to draw is the first thing that a person should master. They should be able to critique their own work, and align it with traditional art. He spoke of concentrating on the work, and not allowing distractions from things like cell phones to interfere. He also made it clear that alcohol is not allowed in the carving shed.

“I think if you are drawing, if you look, if you study the artform, if you try to copy something, the best thing to do is just get a sketch pad,” Nathan chuckles then, “and an eraser.”

He also noted, “There are no shortcuts.”

Nathan Jackson and John Hughes using adzes to shape a cedar log into a totemic sculpture.

Donald Varnell and Nathan Jackson measuring and marking.

There are several large projects in the carving building, and three artists working there. “Thundering Wings” is a Tlingit carving that Nathan originally made for the City of Ketchikan in 1993. It had deteriorated in the rainy Ketchikan weather. The original carving, with the wings removed, stands beside the carving-in-progress. Nathan Jackson, John Hughes, and Donald Varnell are reproducing the artwork.

Careful measurements with a variety of calipers are made to check that the work is symmetrical. A charcoal line is drawn to indicate that a quarter inch be taken off of one side of the tail section. Donald picks up a slick and expertly removes exactly the right amount of wood. Each of the carvers made fine adjustments using tools capable of quickly taking far more material.

Donald Varnell uses an adze to refine a form as Nathan Jackson watches. They are reproducing the eagle carving "Thundering Wings" in the background. The eagle's wings were removed to transport it to the carving shed.

John Hughes carves with a slick while Donald Varnell and Nathan Jackson make marks to note adjustments.

In the Saxman carving shed there are sounds of tools on wood, the radio playing in the background, a few quiet words about a measurement or checking that the carving is level, and the work moves steadily forward. If any hierarchy exists in the carving shed it was not apparent; I saw and heard mutual respect and a sharing of knowledge in all directions.

Hey, Thank You Nathan, John, and Donald!

There will be photos of totem poles in Saxman and Ketchikan in the next post.

Be well everyone,

Alaska Beachcomber

For more posts on Alaska Native Culture click here!

Note: Article updated 3/24/14 with thanks to David Landis. Comments, additional information, and corrections are always welcome!

Alaska Native Cedar Bark Hats

Alaska Native Elders and clan leaders dancing at Shakes Island in Wrangell.

When the canoes landed at Shakes Island for the Rededication Ceremony (see more on that here) I was intrigued by the cedar bark hats that people were wearing. I had never seen so many of these amazing, precious hats in one place. You can't just walk down to the corner store and buy one. Each hat represents many, many hours of skilled work, and each hat starts as bark on a tree.

Cedar bark hat embellished with ermine pelt and abalone button.

Some of the hats are woven so tightly that they are waterproof!  The Alaskan Native people have practiced this work for utility and art for centuries.

An abbreviated description of how these hats are made goes like this. Long strips of cedar bark are harvested in the spring or early summer when the sap is running.  The brittle outer bark is peeled off of the strip and then the more flexible inner bark is split. Those pieces are then split into very thin strips, which are soaked in water and then woven.

Sometimes Alaska Native weavers use spruce root or cedar root to make hats, but more often those materials are used for baskets and other items. 

What caught my eye were the woven designs and embellishments as well as the variations of the basic shape that the weavers created. 

Alaska Native woven hat Wrangell

The hat above left (with red and black designs) is likely made of spruce root. I couldn't quite catch up to him to ask about it.  

I think each of the hats are beautiful, and hope that you enjoyed a closer look!

The beaded hatband can also be worn as a headband.

Details in a Small Totem Park

The One Legged Fisherman totem on a snowy day.

There is a small totem park in downtown Wrangell that I have driven by and walked by for years. Today I decided it was time to walk through this park instead of by it. In the summer the grounds are beautiful and cared for with inviting paths that curve through the trees, gardens, and totems. Now, in this wintery, leafless season, there is another beauty. The totems and tree trunks stand in shades of grey against the thick, snowy blanket.

The totem poles have stood, quietly telling their story every day, for decades. Growing up in Southeast Alaska, I remember looking up at totems, pondering the faces and forms carved deeply into wood, soaking in the formline designs, and being fascinated by the rhythmic texture of the adze marks. When I was a child I was told that each one tells a story, but now I feel that each totem pole tells many stories. The symbols within symbols, layers of textures, and expression within structure speak of deep culture. The reasons for, and meanings of, each pole are as individual as those of any work of art.

Detail of Raven Totem

Detail of Raven Totem.

Each feature of the artworks in this park tells details known to the people who live within the Tlingit society here. Not just each symbol, but the way in which it is depicted. It may be possible for the story to be told in a few words, but for the meaning to fill years or lifetimes.

The totems here have weathered over time. I find that I am fascinated with the way that wood grain and checking add depth, both visually and symbolically.

Eye detail, One Legged Fisherman Totem.

Detail of the Kiks.adi (Three Frogs Totem)

Detail of the Kiks.adi (Three Frogs Totem)

There are many totems throughout Southeast Alaska, from very old totems, housed away from the elements in museums, to bright totems that were carved this year. I look forward to seeing two new totems, raised in the village of Klukwan recently, that are dedicated to women.

In viewing totems I am a tourist in my land. I was born here, and am strongly bound to Southeast Alaska. I am a native of Alaska, but not an Alaskan Native. As the Alaska Native cultures are renewed, celebrated, and strengthened I am given the gift of learning about their culture right here, where they and I have always lived.

Alaska Beachcomber

More posts on Alaska Native culture: Shakes Island Rededication, Canoes Landing for Shakes Island Rededication, Alaska Native Cedar Bark Hats 

You might also enjoy: Food and Medicine from Nature