I am a member of the Tlingit and a totem pole carver. My name is Dis (Say Dees.) It means moon. I am 35 years old, a man whose favorite food, even before deer is medium cooked fresh salmon dipped with fish oil. The skill, or strength I have that makes me proudest of is that I can listen to what the chief wants me to carve on the totem pole really well. I can transfer his words into beautiful carvings an paintings on my totem pole. I think the others admire me most for the great teaching skills I have and how beautiful my totem poles are - they might be the best in all of the Tlingit! The fear that I have is that on a potlach celebrating my totem pole that I carved will crash down when it is raised, and it goes along with my weakness I have which is that I have some problems carving the killer whale and the raven. It takes me five hours each! Something else I want you to know about me is that the most stories I have ever carved in one totem pole is fifteen stories!

My Room in the Cedar Plank Longhouse

My Room in the Longhouse

My Fancy Favorite Clothes for a Potlach Celebrating My Totem Pole Being Raised



A Day in the Life of a Totem Pole Carver

I flung my woven cedar blanket off myself. Today I was going to start carving a totem pole with my student Aas. I went out of the house. The slaves were already starting the fire. I ran down to the river with my friend Ais. It felt good bathing yourself in cool water after waking up so early. I relaxed. This was my favorite part of the day. A ll the others rushed to bathe as well.

I went back. I liked being alone at the river; it was so quiet and beautiful in the mornings. Soon the others came after me and went to clean houses, hunt or fish. I waved to Ais who was running to the woods to kill animals. Hopefully she’ll catch a deer. Their one of my favorites after salmon and fish oil. My aunt and others also went to the wood and beach to collect berries and clams.

I went inside to one of the many sections, to the section that was mine. I quickly grabbed my pallets, paintbrush, carving tools, charcoal, and the ingredients I needed to make the paint: ground up white clamshells and salmon eggs. I ran to where I would carve the next totem pole. Aas was already there, gazing admiringly at the huge cedar tree. Today, my student would help me carve this totem pole for the chief. Chief Daanaa had told me what to carve the day before. I got the charcoal and started drawing beautiful designs. Aas copied me on the other half of the totem pole. A charcoal line separated the copies of Aas, and the expert drawings by me. I kept on swirling my charcoal back and forth printing a raven, a wolf and many other sacred animals on my totem pole. I closed my eyes. Raven for… what was strength and bravery for? I closed my eyes and imagined what the chief had told me. The bear. I looked at what Aas had done so far. Her pictures and lines where nearly like mine. He was great! Soon he would be better than me. I was proud. All because of my skilled teaching.

I smelled salmon stew and berries. I guessed it was time for breakfast. Aas looked hungry, and so was I. We went back to the wooden cedar plank house, to the clan of the wolf. We went to the fire where the wood was already crackling and turned to ashes. Slaves threw in more and more wood. Children were running around, laughing and giggling. I saw a shaman do movements over Gooch and Yeil who where injured. Kook handed me a piece of salmon and berries. I gobbled them down.

Aas and me went back to the totem pole, salmon eggs and clams in his hand for some snacks, because it was time to carve the totem pole, the hardest and most exhausting part of making a totem pole. I gave him a basket to store the things inside, and handed him some carving tools, because Aas was also done with the drawing. I dug the tool into the side of the bear’s face. Aas copied me. He suddenly froze and looked to my left. Chief Daanaa was standing there and was looking at our totem pole. “Beautiful. Simply beautiful,” he muttered. He told us how amazed he was on how beautiful it was. Aas blushed, and I was happy. The chief walked away so we could carve in peace and concentration. Aas’ arms were all sweaty, and so was his face. I was already used to this kind of stuff. We ate some fish eggs and a clam each to get some energy. We kept on going, carving, sweating, eating fish eggs once in a while for hours and hours.

“Come on kids! Time for lunch!” I heard mothers call to their children.

"Finally" I thought. Aas and I went out of the tent, heading to the plank house for the second time. This time though, it was lunch. It was boiled halibut. Hooray. Aax Oox was wrinkling her face. Halibut wasn’t my favorite either. I sat on the floor and Gan handed me a piece. I picked out the fish crates, and stuffed the horrible tasting fish into my mouth. This was the worst part of my day. I come back to have lunch after carving, all tired, and we have halibut! Disgusting. Of course I couldn’t say this out loud. I ate the halibut anyway. I couldn’t waste it. I was still hungry, so I grabbed a handful of smoked fish eggs from a basket. I also asked Te, my favorite slave, to get me half of a smoked salmon from the smoke house. Te ran and fetched me some quickly. She didn’t want any trouble.

Ais suddenly was in the door, carrying a dead deer. I ran to him and congratulated him on his great catch. We’d probably have deer for dinner. Ais went to the fire to receive some fish. I went back to the totem pole. Aas was already waiting.

“Let’s keep on carving,” I told him.

By the end of the time, Xaan had annoyed us and we had finished carving the raven and the bear. Carving is hard work.

This time, we smelled grilled deer. I was really hungry. I walked to the plank house, carrying my tools and paintbrushes that weren’t used. Today we did enough. Inside Ais was smiling as people thanked her for the great bait. I stuffed myself full of the luscious food. It was my favorite food after medium cooked salmon with fish oil. After I finished eating, I could hardly walk because I was so stuffed. We sat around the main fire listening to stories and singing songs. It was a peaceful way to end the day.

I crept back into my personal space, and flung my carpet over myself. We did great. Tomorrow we’ll probably start painting. I wonder if the totem pole will crash when it is raised. But it is way to early to think about that…

I drifted into a long, beautiful sleep.

The Potlach

There was such an amazing outside, not inside potlach yesterday. It was miraculous, and like most coastal Indians, I LOVED it.

Of course, since my totem pole was being raised for this baby I had to wear my best clothes.

Outside, all the slaves were rushing and getting things ready and perfect. The chief was telling them what to do. Dancers painted their faces and put on their beautiful clothes with feathers.

Soon the guests arrived. They came in long decorated battle canoes, all of them dressed in their best clothes for this occasion. Chief Daanaa was welcoming them and letting them sit down. Everybody was there: Ais, my student Aas, the warriors, of course the shaman Dleit, and the canoe maker. Lots of other villagers from other tribes came. Everybody was talking about how things were going in their tribe, since potlaches are a very social party.

Suddenly, there was silence. The shaman Dleit stepped forward, holding the baby in a Chilkat blanket. The baby had a small face and was sleeping. The baby also had a flat stone on her forehead, so her forehead would be flat. Flat foreheads are pretty. She told us stories about babyland and how the babies soul was transferred to the body. She told us how this baby will speak baby language for a while, the same language that the baby souls talked in baby land. She placed the baby in a cedar cradle and did movements, sprinkled herbs and chanted a bless for the baby to always be healthy. She told the the chief that he could always bring the baby to her whenever the baby is upset. The shaman can talk baby language, you see, and can find out what is bothering the baby.

Then everyone turned. The colorful totem pole was on the ground, the raven and other animals on it telling a story. It was here to celebrate the birth. A noble from another tribe congratulated me on the wonderful totem pole. I had carved it with my student Aas. I could still remember how hard it was to make it. This was my favorite part of a potlach. I loved it when everyone congratulated me and watch the totem pole be raised. I patted Aas on the back and told the noble that Aas had done a big and good job too. Aas went all red and smiled, and quickly turned to watch the totem pole being raised. Everybody held their breath. Slaves held cedar bark ropes tied to the totem pole and started pulling and pulling. Would it fall? It nearly did, but the slaved managed to save it before it hit the ground. They knew that the chief could get them killed in no time.

'Bonk, bonk, bonk,' elk hide hand drums played (they are vital, and each dancing group has to use them) and singing filled the air that was before still. A beautiful wolf was painted on the drum; the wolf as you know is our clan symbol and like potlaches they are very important to our culture. A dancer in a bear coat fur and mask started doing movement with his hands and was stamping his feet on the ground. Next, the chief's wife sang her song, the song that nobody else in the tribe can sing because each of us has a song according to our rank. Then came the speeches. Nobles and other chiefs blessed the baby and hoped that it would live long. Then there were more dances: Some with the raven, others with the killer whale, sometimes many people dancing together, and all with natural paint on their faces and costumes out of animal skin, and nose rings out of whale bone. I noticed that the colors were made out of salmon eggs and white ground-up clam shells like the paints I used on my totem pole. The last speech was given by the chief, who was dressed in a Chilkat blanket and a robe and looked very fancy.

Then the slaves, Kook and Te hurried about bringing food to the table. A small, old cedar canoe was brought to the table. Axaa had made it, but it was too old to use, except for cooking. Inside were the all the delicacies that you could imagine. First you had to let the noble gets served. That was for sure. The nobles and all the high ranks in out tribe got special plates with showing our family crest. When it was my turn, I piled my plate. I had to. And since I'm a skilled craftsman, I'm between the noble rank and the commoner rank, I was served shortly after. I also ate from a Horn Feasting Spoon and a feast dish. I saw the other nobles/commoners eat from food trays. I stuffed in the food, not chewing, because that's polite. I knew people would think of me as a rude person, and I didn't want that. I was already stuffed, but I kept on eating and eating. I had already tasted a bit of everything, but I had to keep on eating. Stuffing yourself is very polite. The chief has to get all this food for this potlach. It is impossible to eat all of the food offered. I got a bit more of everything: I got some whale and whale blubber that the chief and other fishermen had killed with spears and daggers just yesterday, some halibut (not my favourite), meat stew, berries, fish like salmon, and to dip everything in I had fish oil and seal oil. The berries tasted marvelous in that seal oil, I tell you.

I couldn't enjoy the food anymore, because I was more than full, and since it was polite, I kept on eating. I only stopped after the others did. I knew I would get fat after all these days of feasting to come.

The rest of the days went the same way. Potlaches are long, perfect parties, except for the food part. That is the worst part in a potlach. You have to eat and eat.

After the feasting and celebrating for all those days, it was time for the chief to show-off his generosity, kindness and wealth. Like always, the gifting would start with the chiefs and nobles, from this tribe and others. They would get the best presents, like copper shields and Chilkat blankets. Some got masks others got slaves and canoes. The high ranks got all these treasures, and all the low ranks got was blankets, baskets and maybe even a Horn Feasting Spoon. The slaves either get given away or given nothing. I was lucky. Since it was mainly my totem pole being raised, I got a Chilkat blanket out of mountain goat wool with beautiful designs. It must have taken 6 months for someone to weave it! Now that Chilkat blanket goes along with my best clothes. I also got a dentalium shell and a box. Aas got a gorgeous cedar blanket, a cedar box and sea otter fur. Like him, others got furs as well. People from other tribes got food to bring with them. In debt, they spread word about how generous our chief Daanaa is. He of course will get very popular and loved. Chief Daanaa was very poor after the potlach, but he knew that he would be invited to many other potlaches to thank him, so he might even become richer. Who knows? Chiefs are so greedy.

After the potlach ended, I was snug deep in my cedar blanket and bed, and in the morning when someone offered me some whale blubber to swallow whole, I went all pale and ran into the bushes...