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Alaskan Totem Carver Looks to Christian, Native Teachings - 2002-08-16

America is a predominantly Christian nation. It's the religion of the first European settlers and the nation's founders. But not all Christians in the United States today trace their roots to Europe. Many Americans of Asian and African ancestry are Christian. And there are also many Native American Indians who turn to the Bible for spiritual direction. But these Native American Indians also frequently turn to the ancient teachings of their ancestors for guidance. As part of VOA's on-going series on religion in America, Mike Osborne introduces us to one man who finds many parallels between the two traditions.

Ketchikan is a favorite port of call for cruise ships plying the waters of the Inside Passage between Washington State and the southeast Alaska panhandle. Each morning, two or three ships tie up at the dock and disembark thousands of passengers for the day.

Most end up in the small native village of Saxman just a few miles outside town. For an hour or two, visitors immerse themselves in the ancient culture of the local Haida, Klingit, and Tshimshian Indians. The stand of two dozen totems at the center of the village is one of the most photographed sites in Alaska.

Across the street from the Saxman totem park, native carver Lee Wallace spends his days creating new totems in an old garage turned carving shed. As he chips away at cedar logs a meter wide and eight meters long, he talks with visitors, answering questions and telling the native stories that inspire most of his carvings. One of his favorite tales is an ancient native parable about the dangers of pride called The Eagle and the Clam.

In the story, a young eagle is warned to avoid the giant clam on the nearby tidal flats. But the youngster can't resist the temptation to test his strength against the clam. "So he swoops by the clam. Nothing really apparently seems to happen. He says, 'It doesn't seem that big, that strong.' So this time he makes another pass at the giant clam and this time he grabs on with his talons and that time the giant clam opened up and grabbed on to his talons and started pulling him down," he says. "He screamed out for help. The other eagles came to his aid and they formed a chain of eagles latched on shoulder to shoulder, all flapping their wings. But what's happening with the young man on the bottom is that there's so much tension being pulled in both directions by the giant clam and the eagles, his eagle cloak is pulled way, and the clam pulls him down and he dies."

When he has finished the story, Lee Wallace turns to his toolbox, pulls out a well worn Bible and shares with his visitors passages from the Bible that parallel the moral against pride at the heart of the centuries old native parable. "In [the Bible book called] 1 Peter 5:5, it says 'Young men, in the same way, be submissive to those who are older. Clothe yourself with humility toward one another because God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble'. In this culture, at an early age we are taught to respect our elders, people of authority, our grandparents, our parents, our uncles, our aunts. Luke 18:14, 'For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted'. That is something you don't do in our culture, is lift yourself up."

Lee Wallace is a third generation Christian. Missionaries who arrived in Alaska in the late 1800's converted his grandfather. Ironically, the northwest native cultures very nearly lost the art of totem carving through the well meaning but misguided efforts of these missionaries, who mistook the poles for idols. Most totems are a kind of family crest and record clan history for a society without a written language. "It actually influenced my grandfather," he says. "He actually stopped carving, and he actually took down poles and he cut them down. After gaining insight into the whole thing, he returned to his carvings and, 'Yeah, I've probably made a mistake'. After you examine the real meaning of these pieces, then you say, 'Yeah, they are not being worshipped or they're not idols'."

Lee Wallace's carving skill is so highly regarded that he's been asked by museums in Alaska and Indiana to restore poles created by his grandfather and his great grandfather. But he seems to have taken the story of the eagle and clam to heart and remains humble about his talent. "Well, I look at my great-grandfather's work and I look at other artists' different fields, and to me I just haven't achieved that. And just pushing yourself always, just to improve each time, and I just praise God for the talent he's given me."

Lee Wallace is using that talent not only to honor God but to preserve the ancient traditions of his people, as well. If you'd like to take a look at some of the totem poles to be found in the Saxman area online, visit the site and click on "totems".