Totem pole to honor Alaska Natives

From its Native American Center to the Hozhoni Days powwows, Fort Lewis College has long been exuberant and morally serious about its mission to honor and educate Native American students.

But Yvonne Bilinski, director of the center, said the college's many tributes to Native American students' diverse heritage overlooked one critical segment: Alaska Native students.

That is set to change Jan. 16, when an 8-foot totem pole - an art form that is wedded with the histories of many Alaskan tribes - is to be erected in the Native American Center.

Bilinski said she had wanted to commission a totem pole since she started at FLC in 2006, noting that there were many Alaskan students.

"Not every tribe does powwows, and I thought we should do something that recognizes what Alaska's native students' cultures are like," she said, "Not that the totem pole represents all of Alaska, but it is a visual piece that will remind people of Alaska and the students who come from coastal tribes."

Bilinski commissioned David Boxley, an artist from the Tsimshian, a Native American tribe in southeastern Alaska, to build the totem pole.

Bilinski was eager to note Boxley's renown, twice mentioning that he had a 22-foot, 3,000-pound totem pole permanently installed at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2012.

Aside from touting Boxley's involvement, Bilinski has been tight-lipped about the totem pole. She said Boxley's commission was private but acknowledged totem poles "don't come cheap."

She said the work was "sitting in our office in a big wooden crate" but declined to provide a picture or let it be photographed.

"You're not the only organization that's asked for a picture. But no one will see it 'til the unveiling," she said. "It's the whole thing about the wedding dress - the groom doesn't see it 'til the day of the ceremony."

She did divulge that the totem pole is made from the traditional cedar, featuring two animal figures signifying "security, peace and strength."