Deliver Benefits to the Public

Yaxté totem restored to traditional homeland of Áak’w Kwáan Tlingit

Photo: A totem stands in front of green green trees. The top of the totem is a brightly painted
Yaxté Totem stands in place overlooking the Auke Village Recreation Area within the Tongass National Forest. Forest Service photo by Dru Fenster.

More than 75 years after it was carved and raised, the restored Yaxté totem stands tall again within the traditional homeland of the Áak’w Kwáan Tlingit, where it overlooks the Auke Village Recreation Area within Tongass National Forest. The Yaxté (Big Dipper) totem symbolizes a “place where a strong tribe flourished.” The Áak’w Kwáan were the first people to settle in the area that is now Juneau, Alaska. The restored totem was raised on June 6 and a rededication event was held June 15.

The Yaxté totem was brought to life by in 1941 by Frank St. Clair, a Tlingit carver from Hoonah, and two Alaska Native members of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It features five carved bird faces, the face of an Áak’w noblewoman revered for averting an oncoming war assault from another tribe, and a raven at the top to represent the moiety. The totem is supported at the base by the motif of a female brown bear, which represents the Big Dipper (Yaxté) and serves as the primary crest of the Yaxté Hít (Dipper House) people of the Áak’w Kwáan L’eeneidi (Raven-Dog Salmon) clan.

Over the years, water damage and insects affected the structural integrity of the Yaxté totem. The totem also suffered the effects of stubborn woodpeckers and was damaged by arsonists and bullet holes. In the mid-1990s, the totem was restored and reinstalled, but the Forest Service took it down again in 2010 in the interest of public safety.

The Forest Service consulted with Áak’w Kwáan elders and the Douglas Indian Association to find a way to refurbish and re-erect the pole. After an assessment of the pole was done by master carver Tommy Joseph, the Juneau Ranger District proceeded with the current restoration project. Tlingit master carver Wayne Price and apprentice carver Fred Fulmer of the Hoonah Chookaneidí, a great-grandson of the totem’s original carver, restored the totem over the course of two years, beginning in 2015.

Since time immemorial, Alaska Natives have maintained their spiritual ownership of the land. Recognizing that tribes are the land’s first stewards, conservationists and users, the Alaska Region supports partnerships that integrate tribal perspectives on land management. The Alaska Region has a commitment to integrating the cultural heritage and traditional knowledge of Alaska Natives into its programs.

Photo: Man in workshop with pieces of carved totem. He is holding the beak
Tlingit master carver Wayne Price begins restoration of the Yaxté Totem in summer 2015. Forest Service photo.
Photo: Totem is raised into place by heavy equipment. A worker in a hard hat is above in a cherry picker. More workers are on the ground below.
The restored Yaxté totem being raised with the invaluable assistance of Alaska Electric Light and Power Company, Alaska Marine Lines and the Juneau Police Department. Their expertise helped the pole-raising proceed safely while Áak’w Kwáan clan members celebrated with traditional songs and dances. Forest Service photo by Dru Fenster.