‘Teaching moment’: Intricate totem pole trail elevates Indigenous culture in Juneau

David Russell-Jensen of Sealaska Heritage Institute hopes to share Tlingit culture and language to Alaska and the world.
Published: Jun. 14, 2023 at 10:25 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 15, 2023 at 7:32 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - All week there’s been an exchange of cultures between Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives as the Hokulea crew prepares for Thursday’s departure ceremony from Juneau, Alaska for a four-year voyage around the Pacific.

A trail of intricate totem poles standing 20 feet high that are hard to miss in downtown Juneau. The poles decorate the neighborhood, as a means of both public art and Indigenous cultural appreciation.

To understand the history and significant behind the totem poles, we turned to a local nonprofit organization aimed toward elevating Native Alaskan culture.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute is a native nonprofit organization — the nonprofit arm of Sealaska Corporation — where they provide educational cultural language arts programming for 25,000 plus Southeast Alaska Natives.

“These are part of the Kootéeyaa Deiyí which means ‘Totem Pole Trail’ in Tlingit. These poles were just raised in April of this year. They were carved throughout Southeast,” said David Russel-Jensen of the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

SPECIAL SECTION: Hokulea Pacific Voyage

“They were carved in our rural communities by master carvers, as well as their apprentices,” Russel-Jensen explained. “And so we recognize that carving totem poles, similar to the carving of the Hokulea, is becoming slightly endangered so we’ve paired master artists with younger apprentices to have a teaching moment.”

These totem poles are a labor of love, with some taking over a year to create.

“It’s so special for us you know we get to share our culture with non-natives in the community as well as visitors,” Russel-Jensen said.

He added that similar to Hawaii, Juneau receives a number of visitors during visiting season. They’re expecting 1.5 million people this summer.

“So it’s such a blessing to be able to share what an authentic experience of what it means to be Native here,” he said.

Hokulea’s departure ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. HST on Thursday. The actual departure has been postponed to Saturday, pending weather.

Hawaii News Now will be streaming the ceremony live on all digital platforms.