Historic Auk Totem Pole Being Restored

The The Yax té totem is 47 feet long (Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
The The Yax té totem is 47 feet long (Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

A 74-year-old totem pole that once stood at the Auke Recreation Area in Juneau is being restored for a second time. The Yax té pole had to be taken down in 2010 after it was damaged by woodpeckers and heavy rains. Now after being in storage for five years, it’s getting a new life.

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In 1941, The Yax té pole was carved by Frank St. Clair, a Tlingit from Hoonah as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Originally, it was intended to be one of many in an Auk Village totem park. But World War II broke out and funding dried up. Fred Fulmer, Frank St. Claire’s great-grandson, is helping with the restoration.

“Whenever great-grandpa’s pole needed to be restored redone I wanted to be a part of that. My nephew told me about Wayne over here doing the totem pole so I stopped by and he said come on over,” says Fulmer.

Wayne Price finishes painting the top of the pole (Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Wayne Price finishes painting the top of the pole (Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Wayne Price is the master carver for the restoration and has been doing this kind of work for over 43 years—making dugout canoes and totems. He’s a Tlingit from Haines and says he found his calling watching his dad.

“I remember looking up watching him carve. That’s it. That’s what I want to do. I got the opportunity to start sweeping up the wood chips,” Price says.

He’s worked on 36 different totem poles in his career, and he says the feeling he gets is the same every time.

“You walk into the room and smell the red cedar and see the tools and create the artwork that means so much and goes so far back,” he says.

In Tlingit, Yax té means “Big Dipper.” The raven sits at the top of the 47-foot tall pole. Price says it’s one of the tallest totems he’s ever worked on.

This isn’t the only time the pole has been restored. In the 90s, the base was vandalized by arson. The carver who worked on that first restoration made a startling discovery: several bullets had been shot into it. Rosa Miller is the tribal leader for the Auk Kwaan. She remembers being heartbroken seeing it in that state before.

“I don’t understand why people shoot at things like that,” Miller says. “It’s obviously there for a reason. The reason it was put there was to honor us. We are the original settlers here. The clan of the area.”

Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO
Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO

Fred Fulmer, the original carver’s great grandson, says he has childhood memories of taking care of the totem. He’s from Hoonah but when he would come to Juneau, his mom would want visit the pole at Auk Bay Village.

“She would go around and pick up garbage and start weeding. All of us would jump in and start cleaning. She didn’t say anything. She just went to it. You know, you got the cue, get in there and do that,” Fulmer says.

He’s passed on that reverence for the Yax té pole to his daughter, Yolanda.

“The feeling I get is just one of connection with my ancestors,” she says. “You know with my great-great grandfather. I can imagine the hands that worked on this pole. So it’s a real visceral feeling. I get the tingles and I get the chills.”

The restoration will be completed in the following weeks. The wings will be put back on the totem. It’s being repainted turquoise, yellow and red. Wayne Price says story poles like this one are, essentially, a history book of Native culture.

“We didn’t have paper but we carved the whole tree. This is classical example of that. Being a part of keeping that book so people can read it is very, very rewarding,” he says.

Yolanda says it’s going to be wonderful to see the pole return to its home.

“Know that our ancestors are with us and that we can sing and celebrate and bring this pole back to life,” she says.

But it might be a while before the Yax té totem returns to the Auke Recreation Area. The Juneau Ranger District is still looking for funding to put the pole back in its place.