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First Ever Gathering of Master Carvers in Alaska
Carvers to be honored in a way that comes from the heart
by M.C. Kauffman


August 16, 2004

Ketchikan, Alaska - An event of a historical magnitude will be taking place in Ketchikan this week - a first time ever gathering of master carvers. Throughout the ages, cultural histories have been celebrated and preserved through the masterful hands of the carvers. Now for the first time ever, poles will be carved to honor the totem pole carvers - the preservers of the history.

The background of how this historical event came to take place in Ketchikan is important to the story. According to Ketchikan resident Nyna Fleury, unknown to her at the time the seed that would lead to this week's gathering of what could be more than 100 carvers was first sowed four years ago. At that time, Fleury said she was fortunate to accompany Esther Shay and Willard Jackson to Japan to meet with the Ainu people. Fleury said she learned many things from the Ainu people - people who have a culture similar to the Haida, Tlinglit and Tshimshian people of Southeast Alaska.

jpg Carvers Ketchikan, Alaska

Nyna Fleury is pictured during the log selection at the Pacific Log & Lumber Company...
Photo courtesy Nyna Fleury

Several years later in November of 2003, Fleury was encouraged to return to Japan by her friend and mentor Esther Shay to meet with Mr. Fujito of the Ainu people who is renowned for carving bears. Fleury said Mr. Fujito carves all kinds of bears and shared she learned that he has never seen a bear. Mr. Fujito is able to carve the different bears because he can "feel" them, she said. Fleury, who is a bear guide, extended an invitation to Master Carver Mr. Fujito to visit Ketchikan to see the bears. This invitation warmed the seed that would eventually bloom with nurturing care into the gathering of the carvers.

Fleury later shared her story of meeting the carver of bears, Mr. Fujito, with the carvers who attended her friend and mentor's funeral. There was an interest among the carvers to meet Mr. Fujito if he were able to visit Ketchikan. Fleury said it was at this time that she began to put things together and first realized that a seed had been planted years before that would grow into something very special.

First Fleury invited Nathan Jackson to come to her home and have dinner and meet the carver Mr. Fujito when he came to Ketchikan. "He mentioned that there were other carvers who would like to meet him and that I should give them a call. And after three or four days of making a lot of phone calls, I had over 60 carvers that were willing to come to Ketchikan." After so much interest was expressed by the carvers, Fleury said, " I and some other volunteers thought it would be nice to have a totem pole carved." She said, "We thought we would carve the All Nations Pole using the Canadian carvers, the Tlinglit carvers, the Haida carvers and the Tshimshian carvers."

Fleury said they then asked for donations for logs, places to carve and finally the project started coming together. In an interview on Friday, Fleury said the carvers have already started to arrive and they already have the logs at the University and the carvers are getting ready to carve. The list of Master Carvers is impressive. Carvers are gathering in Ketchikan from Sitka, Metlakatla, Anchorage, Craig, Saxman, Ketchikan, Sequim, Tacoma, Hydaburg, Canada, Seattle and other areas.

Also arriving from Japan on Monday at noon will be the bear carver Mr. Fujito along with wife, Shingi Sato an interpreter, and Mr. Ando and his wife. Fleury said there is a big dinner planned for Monday evening at the Ted Ferry Civic Center at 6:00 pm. Monday's dinner is a "Warming of the Hands" dinner which she described as an expression "toward the carvers of being welcomed, get your hands ready, you're going to go to work." The Cape Fox Dancers have been asked to dance, she said.

When they went to get a 42 foot pole, Fleury said Stan Marsden, one of the carvers, suggested they have it cut in 10 foot sections and have four poles instead of one so that people can see the different styles of carving and art. And that's what was agreed.

As more ideas came in it was decided to honor the totem pole carvers, said Fleury. She spoke of the contributions of the carvers of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who worked on totem restoration back before 1939. These CCC carvers went out to abandoned villages to bring totem poles in to restore. Fleury said, "I thought it would be nice to have them memorialized. Name them, who worked on the totem poles. And also carvers who have passed on who kept the history going."

" I really want to put out there that these men are preserving a culture that was almost lost and they should be honored in a way that comes from the heart. And that's what we're doing," said Fleury.

After discussions with others, Fleury said it was agreed that Kenny Decker will be doing the Tshimshian pole, Steven Jackson will be doing the Tlinglit pole, Warren Peele will be designing the Haida pole and a Canadian artist will be doing the fourth pole. She said, "Fred Lewis from Seattle who is a totem pole carver is going to do an extra fifth pole of an Eagle Frog, that's my family."

According to Fleury, four of the poles will be put up at 507 Stedman Street. Frank & Emma Williams, who had a big influence in the Ketchikan area, once owned this home which is 104-years old and the oldest house on the street. At that time, Fleury said everything on that side of Creek Street was called Indian Town. Fleury now owns this home and said she has tried to carry on the tradition established by the Williams by preserving the welcoming spirit of the home for those in need of a place to rest as they travel through.

The fifth pole will go to the Ted Ferry Civic Center with Deer Mountain as the backdrop. Fleury said she wants to honor her mother and her grandfather, Peter Nathan, who was a carver in the CCC, and to give back to the City. She said, "The City really helped me out when my house burned. There were so many people there helping me. So this is my way of saying thank you."

Fleury said those helping her the most with pulling this project together were Stan Marsden, Nathan Jackson, Israel Shotridge, and Frank Perez. Fleury said, "There were days I was calling Stan Marsden three or four times a day." She said they helped her the most with ideas, getting things together, what to do and how to do it, where to go for help, and what the protocol is. Fleury said it was really hard getting this together as there has never been a program to honor totem pole carvers that any of the carvers could remember.

Fleury said they have a couple of carvers who are non Native that she felt were really important to the project. Bill Holm, 80, is one of them she said. Holm won't be able to attend but she said he has contributed to preserving the art, history and culture. Steven Brown has done a lot of canoes and is well known in Native art and she mentioned Robert Barratt. She said Robert Barratt is carving with Israel Shotridge right now. Fleury said, "These non Native totem pole carvers have added to our culture by learning it themselves."

jpg - logs Ketchikan, Alaska

Phil Jackson helps with unloading the logs...
Photo by Yeda Hicks ©2004

One of the carvers that has passed on who was an influence to many carvers was Freda Diesing from British Columbia, said Fleury. All the carvers talk about her with great admiration on how she would teach them and her technique, she said.

Many hands will be involved in the carving room this week at the University's Robertson Building. The carvers will begin carving Monday and will carve through Sunday (August 16th - August 22nd). Fleury said a lot of good things have come out of bringing the people together. She said, "There's never been a totem pole carvers gathering before. This is the first one of its kind."

"Eight-year old and nine-year old boys are going to be looking at these Master Carvers with awe in their eyes and fifty or sixty years from now they're going to say I met all these carvers at one time in Ketchikan. And those are the types of memories I'm hoping to instill in all these little kids," Fleury said. She has never even met most of these carvers other than the local ones. "It's exciting for me to see them."

The carvers will carve all week and interested persons may stop by to observe. There's no set schedule but it's a time for the carvers to share, Fleury said, "The whole idea wasn't to get the poles finished or completed but to share techniques, to encourage young apprentices to keep on going on their dreams, to show young people - little girls and little boys - how to carve."

She said they have three women that are going to be carving on these poles. There haven't been a lot of women carvers in the past according to Fleury. "Having the carvers come together I hope will spark something in a lot of the other younger children - native or non native - to pick up the art and continue it." There is a program at the Heritage Center that an individual can go through for two years and become an apprentice under someone then you can start on your way, she said.

Fleury mentioned some of the ones who have donated and helped make this gathering possible. The City donated $9,000 towards this event which helped cover the cost of Ted Ferry Center and other things. Steve Seley of Pacific Log & Lumber Company located on Gravina Island donated a huge portion of the log. What they had to pay for the log was very little compared to what it was worth, said Fleury. Amak Towing Company and Southeast Stevedoring Corporation barged the logs over so they wouldn't get wet and trucked them over to the University's Robinson Building.

Fleury said food would be provided to the carvers. She recognized those who have offered to cook this week: Larvene John, Helen Peterson, Betty and Al Keta, and Matt Dewitt.

A potluck is scheduled as the finale at 6:00 pm on Sunday, August 22nd at the Ted Ferry Civic Center. The public is invited to come and meet the carvers and see the native dancing. Invitations have also been sent out to other dance groups from out of town.

Her great mentor and friend Esther Shay instilled in Fleury the native culture and what it meant to be native and to give back. Fleury said her friend taught her that if you are a taker your life is miserable and if you give freely, not expecting to get back, you're life will be blessed just by giving. Fleury said her friend and mentor breathed the first spark of life into the seed that has bloomed with the help of so many into the gathering of the carvers. And this week there will be many people giving.




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