I’m standing on a bridge in Wrangell’s downtown harbor. This bridge connects Wrangell mainland to Chief Shakes Island; where the historic Chief Shakes tribal house is located. This house has been here for over a century. And to ensure it makes it another century Wrangell’s Cooperative Association is in the middle of a major restoration project to repair the old clan house and the totem poles surrounding it. In charge of this task are seven carvers.
These carvers are from all over Alaska, including, Haines, White Horse, Homer, Sitka, and Wrangell. They’ve spent hundreds of hours since August adzing the new posts, walls, and flooring for the restored clan house. Linda Churchill is one of the Wrangell carvers working on the project and her mother use to live on the island.
“When I’m there I feel like I am home too. And so it’s quite exciting to be part of this. My dad and uncle have all been in there and adzed. And I feel very fortunate to be a part of all this,” she says.
Like many of the carvers Churchill has a connection to the clan house. Its part of her family history as well as her Tlingit heritage, but the house also has a community wide significance. Local carver Tammi Meissner.
“When you stop and think about what we are doing, replacing art work. Sometimes it feels a little overwhelming.”
She says the project has been spiritual experience for her and says she and the rest of the carvers want to make their ancestors and the future generations proud of the work they’re doing.
“It’s nice to have a team that completely supports what you are doing and is always looking out and saying good job. We want to do our best, so questioning myself all the time is one of the biggest things I need to overcome,” she says.
Vanessa Pazar has been carving for over a decade, and says working alongside Master Carver Wayne Price has taught her a lot.
“The time to observe Wayne Price working using his adze and tools and watching how he communicates with the board, with an open heart and open mind has really influenced me,” she says.
The other carvers agree the project has influenced them to continue to develop their craft.
“I have a lot more confidence in what I can do and what I can achieve and I feel like I can do a lot more now.” That’s Josh Lesage and like many of the other carvers he believes the project has expanded his knowledge and appreciation for the craft. Same goes for Justin Smith.
“I like doing this kind of work and I want to keep doing it. I have done it a few times for other communities and it just feels good to do this kind of work. It really benefits everyone,” he says.
So far the group has adzed over 4,000 of the 7,000 sq ft of wood for the project, and as the winter months approach the team of carvers are still hard at work carving the last of the wood for the house. Master Carver Wayne Price says the key to the longevity of a clan house, is to restore it properly and not cut corners along the way, something he says his team understands.
“I have had a chance to gather this team together and make them what they are, and proud of who they are. It’s about an honest day work and an honest day pay, and that’s how we are going to do it. And we will build this clan house. And if all goes well on time. But my policy is it will be done when it’s done,” he says.
In mid-November Price will be heading to Sitka to work on a totem pole project. At that time a small crew will work through the winter months in Wrangell to prepare for the restoration work in the spring.
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