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Mark Sabbatini
Juneau Empire

Fulfilling this tale of healing took a lot more time and effort than anyone anticipated, but a lot more people will now be able to appreciate the inspiration of its success.

A 22-foot healing totem pole is now being installed next to the fishing dock at Twin Lakes, which accompanied by Eagle and Raven painted screens will become the Kaasei Totem Plaza. The project is sponsored by AWARE — whose nearby shelter for survivors of gender-based violence bears the same name as the plaza.

Installation is expected to take about a month and the totem is scheduled to officially debut at the end of Celebration, a biennial Alaska Native typically attended by thousands and seen by thousands more online, scheduled June 8-11.

The totem by Tlingit master carver Wayne Price, a Haines resident who’s crafted numerous healing totems and dugouts during a nearly 20-year span, originally was scheduled to be installed at the shelter in the spring of 2019.

But AWARE Director Mandy Cole said discussions with the city, The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and others involved in the project resulted in the effort to place it across the lake in the children’s park area of Twin Lakes.

“When this opportunity came up to work with Tlingit and Haida and the city, and have this pole be a larger part of the community, it seemed like a great idea,” she said. “And it is a great idea, but it just takes a little more time.”

“Kaasei” is a Lingít word that means “higher voice” and the totem illustrates a story by Price’s wife, Cherri, about “a mother, daughter and small child on their healing path as they overcome domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse,” according to a narrative by AWARE.

(Related: ‘Spirit of the Waters’ totem pole journey begins)

The story of family trauma that led to the totem pole’s creation is far too common in our community,” the narrative states. “We all know victims and survivors, and Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women; we are all impacted by interpersonal violence. AWARE and Tlingit & Haida feel that it is time to tell the story of healing. The Healing Totem Pole is a testament to the power of love and cultural support, and the intrinsic strength of our people.”

The park at the lake is a premier family gathering area, making it the ideal site for the totem’s message to reach a wide range of people able to appreciate it most, Wayne Price said in an interview Friday from Haines Junction, where he is working on yet another healing dugout for Champagne and Aishihik First Nations’ community wellness department.

“If kids walk over to the totem pole and mom tells them the story of what it’s about, then maybe it will make boys into men who can deal with the situation,” he said.

The totem depicts a Tlingit woman holding a baby boy in one hand and a feather next to her heart with the other, while being hugged by a young girl. The mother is standing on a “tear box” representing oppression, while above her are images and words of hope and kindness,

“I think the larger kind of message of the pole is pretty clear when you look at it,” Cole said. “It has a mother and a child in an embrace, and when you are around it in the presence of the totem you feel the love that Wayne put into the carving and the depictions are soft. They’re like soft on your heart, they’re gentle and they feel like love. There will be those who get information from the pole by reading – and it’s worthwhile – but it will be the feelings it evokes when you are next to it that are unmistakable.”

Cherri Price said her husband captures the tale of a family “going from one extreme to the other” in an exemplary way honoring traditional healing artwork.

“He drew it in a log, carved it and he just nailed it,” she said.

The log was brought from Thorne Bay to Haines during the summer of 2017. Wayne Price worked on it until early 2019 for its originally scheduled debut, but the decision to move it to Twin Lakes means it has been in storage much longer than anyone anticipated. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of Celebration in 2020 and incorporating it into the park meant there were other complications.

“The timeline has been long because of COVID, but also because construction projects are difficult to time,” Cole said.

Wayne Price said everyone involved in the project wanted to make sure the totem’s debut occurred when the community felt safe doing so in an appropriately celebratory fashion. He said it won’t be his only healing craft featured during the event, as he plans to arrive in the dugout he’s working on – along with others made previously.

“When I paddle from Haines to Juneau I’m hoping to have four of my dugouts at the same time,” he said.

The dugout Wayne Price is working on is 30 feet long and has room for nine polers to navigate the waters during the 80-mile journey that typically takes three days (although he’s leaving five days before Celebration to allow for bad weather). He said he doesn’t know how large his group in the four dugouts will be, but right now “I think I’m up to 33 polers.”

As for his plans during Celebration, besides being the honored craftsman during the finale?

“I’m going to go dance, man,” he said.

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This article was published via AP Storyshare.