A Tall Order Master totem carvers at work


Master carvers are more than artists, they’re storytellers. Early missionaries wrongly assumed that Alaska Native totems were pagan symbols, and by 1938, all but a few had been destroyed. Had the U.S. Forest Service and a Depression-era federal program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) not stepped in to enlist Native carvers, like Israel Shotridge, Donald Varnell, and Nathan Jackson to restore and replicate the poles, much of the Native art would be lost. Totems, through their stacked figures, tell of clan histories, major events, deaths, even ridicule. Animal symbols remain prominent in the traditional carvings, including the raven, eagle, wolf, bear, bear-mother, killer whale, and frog. While many of these animals signify a general attribute (ie. eagle: creator/trickster), the true story remains with the carver, in his hands, beneath the wood, etched into narrative art. —Michelle Theall
Tlingit master carver, Israel Shotridge, carves a traditional totem in Ketchikan.

Israel Shotridge

Israel Shotridge, born and raised in Ketchikan and a member of the Teikweidee Taantwaan Bear Clan of the Tongass Tribe, works to honor the history and traditions of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes by replicating monumental tribal totems, which are now prominently displayed in Totem Bight State Historical Park, Klawock, Saxman and downtown Ketchikan. Whether he’s restoring, replicating or creating new carvings, his work blends modern and traditional elements together, resulting in uniquely executed artistry

Israel Shotridge’s mother [LEFT] at her son’s totem raising celebration. [RIGHT] Totem by Tlingit carver Israel Shotridge is raised in downtown Ketchikan.

Donald Varnell

Though Donald Varnell apprenticed under traditional carvers, including Nathan Jackson, he likes to go his own way and produce unexpected and indefinable works of art. Early in his career, he once used Manga (Japanese-style cartoons) on a totem. Having just won the prestigious Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptures grant, Donald looks forward to using expensive red cedar on upcoming projects and continuing to surprise us with what he calls “experiments.”

From the beginning, to the finished product, Donald Varnell's totems are totally unique.

Nathan Jackson

“I always wanted to be my own captain,” Nathan Jackson, of the Tlingit Sockeye Clan, says of his carving career. He was raised as a fisherman, and thought that would be his course. Instead, his hobby for creating miniature totem carvings grew into 30 foot works of art and demonstrated a rare gift that would become his life’s work. Followers of his art note his unwavering, timeless respect for tradition.

Master carver Nathan Jackson at totem raising ceremony at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Nathan Jackson at work on the facial structure of a totem.
Tlingit master carver, Nathan Jackson, uses a tool to carve details into a totem at the carving shed in Saxman [RIGHT].
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Alaska Magazine MMN


(photography by Clark James Mishler)

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