The grain of the exposed red cedar flesh gave an internal rhythm to the sculpture. It expanded over the warrior’s shoulder and condensed from a pointed cheek into the recess below an eye. It unfurled throughout the unpainted, blond totem pole, lending an almost fourth dimension. David Robert Boxley, a Tsimshian artist from Metlakatla, lifted an adze and with precise, deliberate, and bold force, began trimming the warrior’s right forearm. The measured pounding laid a baseline beneath the music Boxley played in his shop.
“The whole Creedence Clearwater Greatest Hits is excellent adzing music,” Boxley said. “The beat is just right for it.”
Boxley is from Metlakatla, on Annette Island, Alaska’s southernmost town and the only Tsimshian community in Alaska. Metlakatla is the site of the first tribal veterans cemetery, though it is not private—any American veteran may elect to rest there. Boxley was charged with completing two seven-foot totem poles, slated to be erected on either side of the cemetery’s entrance.
Metlakatla is an isolated community; it’s the only settlement on Annette Island and only accessible by plane or boat. And these boats and planes come from Ketchikan, which was one of the nation’s hottest COVID-19 spots in the spring and early summer of 2021, further restricting travel. Boxley is gregarious, and community engagement is a cornerstone of his efforts at cultural revitalization, so the pandemic put him in a temporary justifiable state of social hypoxia.
“Everything sucks right now,” was how he summarized things in January.
“It’s been a beast of a time,” he said in February; April was “a drag,” and May: “I feel like an old man.”
At 40, Boxley deserves to feel old.
Boxley started carving when he was five, and sold his first wooden mask when he was seven. At 13, he was selling his work to galleries in the Seattle area. When the sculptor was 15, an art teacher pronounced him the only student the teacher had that could currently make a living as a professional artist. Also at 15, Boxley began a three-year stint studying under illustrator Chris Hopkins, whose resume includes designing Indiana Jones posters.
Boxley received a full scholarship to attend Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. He accepted his first commissioned totem pole when he was 20. He’s worked on poles for the Memphis Zoo, the Smithsonian, and the Epcot Center. Perhaps his most distinguished accomplishment is his work with renowned Haida carver Robert Davidson.
“He is the best in the world,” Boxley said, “A legend in Northwest Coast art.”
In 2011, Boxley, who left Metlakatla when he was five, returned to participate in the memorial potlatch for his paternal grandmother. His father, Tsimshian artist David Albert Boxley, had asked Boxley to carve and raise a totem pole for the celebration. He stayed for a year, then returned to Seattle. He recalls looking at the plaque for a piece of his in a gallery. It read, “David R. Boxley, Tsimshian.” He said he had an epiphany: “What good is this, if no one knows what ‘Tsimshian’ means? If no one is left to understand that word?”
That was the moment Boxley decided to return to Metlakatla more permanently and shift his focus from becoming a successful artist to reclaiming and reestablishing cultural practices in his hometown.
A brief history
The community of Metlakatla, Alaska, was founded in 1887. A group of 823 Tsimshians, now known as the Pioneers, left Metlakatla, British Columbia, a town in the Prince Rupert region where a majority of Tsimshians resided. Tsimshian language and cultural traditions had been discouraged if not prohibited region-wide. Prior to the departure of the Pioneers, English Missionary William Duncan had successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to establish an Indian reserve on Annette Island, similar to an Indian reservation in the Lower 48. The Pioneers, with Duncan, were towed in canoes by steamship and landed on a sandbar off the coast of where “New Metlakatla,” or Metlakatla, Alaska, currently lies. In the 1970s, Metlakatla opted out of participation in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, maintaining sovereign rights to their lands and waters.
Sm’algyax, the Tsimshian language, was prohibited at the local Metlakatla school in 1915, and people were punished for speaking it. Potlatches, essentially the entire social and governmental systems, were banned before the Pioneers’ departure from B.C. It’s an unfortunately common narrative of forced assimilation, of a confusing sense of loss and disorientation, a narrative many, frankly, are tired of hearing.
“There’s so much of that attitude: ‘It was a long time ago, get over it,’” Boxley said. He explained how his grandmother went to the Wrangell Institute, a residential school in southeast Alaska not unlike the schools where mass graves have been uncovered in Canada this past year. Boxley recalled his grandmother sharing stories about students being beaten for speaking Sm’algyax.
“She died in 2010,” Boxley said. “It’s not like it’s ancient history.”
Boxley’s father was one of the pivotal catalysts of retroactively reclaiming Tsimshian culture. His efforts began with an Exacto knife and a four-by-four-inch piece of lumber from the hardware store and advanced to a point where he moved his family down to the Seattle area for proximity to the commercial market. The concept of immersion learning, picking up on language and trades as they’re passed down through generations, is romantic and idealistic in the aftermath of colonialization. People like Boxley’s father had to teach himself what people in his great-great-grandfather’s generation knew as second nature.
“Even though the generations to come are going to be a fuller realization of what it is to be Tsimshian,” said Boxley, “I’m in the first generation [since the relocation to Alaska] to grow up with our culture again.”
Out of a sense of responsibility to his community and generations before him, and out of self-interest, Boxley has devoted the last few years of his life to learning Sm’algyax and promoting other cultural practices.
“I’m pretty sure that the language and the culture and a better future for my people matters more to me than whether or not I’m a famous artist,” Boxley said.
Pride. Honor. Protection. Respect. These values that encouraged Boxley’s return to Metlakatla and his work within the town, are beholden by the military as well. Carving totem poles for a military cemetery intersects two similar belief systems between parties that have, not long ago, violently clashed.
Consider the irony of Alaska Native and American Indian military service. They fight on behalf of a country that displaced and antagonized them, and prohibited their traditions and languages.
“Whether or not I personally agree with the wars we’re fighting, it’s an honorable thing to defend and fight for your people,” Boxley said. “The service of these individuals is admirable. It was 10,000 years ago and it still is now.”
Boxley can commiserate with the anger and frustration some Natives feel towards other Natives who choose to serve. But, he explained, “It’s misguided and misplaced. It’s still our land, our world, it’s still that idea of protecting our people. The sacrifices of being in the military are enormous. The willingness to lay your life down for your country—it’s beautiful. And it is our country. We’re citizens too.”
In late spring, the 45-minute ferry ride from Ketchikan to Metlakatla, how most residents leave and enter town, is sprinkled with seasonal residents, like the Presbyterian Church pastor who’s returning from down south to host Sunday services through the summer.
At 6’ 2”, standing in a Superman shirt at the ferry offramp, Boxley takes on the presence of a totem pole himself. Poles tell stories, through characters identifiable through oral and family histories. The characters, like Superman, represent events, themes, and characteristics. Those familiar with the carved and painted images can read the story along the pole. Boxley’s affinity to Superman is less about showmanship and physical strength than the hero’s moral composition.
“This guy with all his power just doing what’s good, could rule the world, and all he cares about is doing what he can to help people.”
Boxley is the kind of guy who feels guilty if someone gets a mosquito bite in his presence, for not having prevented it. He rarely speaks without crediting someone: the construction crew that paved the road he was driving, or who made the coffee that morning. And he’s a talker, so appreciation is not an endangered resource. The same cannot be said for the red cedar he uses for his totem poles.
The Beatles played over the stereo in Boxley’s Tacoma as he drove to town. Stunted vegetation hugs the bedrock ridges running down the 18-mile-long largely uninhabited island. Yellow cedar dominates the undulating lower terrain, scattered with inland lakes and arresting geologic formations like Yellow Hill, a 550-foot-tall dome of smooth yellow rock that, according to some residents, has the northern-most population of salamanders.
“Good poles are hard to come by,” Boxley explained. “Five hundred- to one-thousand-year-old trees are the best.”
Red cedar are what carvers like Boxley prefer to use for mid- and larger-scale poles. But they’re becoming scarce.
“The old growth has rings that are very close together, makes for good carving,” Boxley explained. “If the grain isn’t tight, it’s like carving cork. New growth has too many branches. You want something without knots and burls, or else it’s firewood.”
One of the logs Boxley carved for the cemetery was a rare find on Annette Island. The second log was carved from a red cedar from Prince of Wales Island. Boxley estimates there are about 25 years left of choice timber, and importing a good log can cost around $20,000.
“We should be doing everything we can to preserve the old growth,” said Boxley.
He pulled into a lookout to point out the fish processing plant, which, due to a plunge in harvest numbers, has not operated in two years. Paul McCartney’s voice swelled from the speakers, insisting, “It’s getting better all the time.”
Infrastructure holdovers from a World War II military airbase include roads to the south and east of the dense, gridded community center. Boxley drove to an abandoned paved landing strip, where kids now learn to ride bikes and families bring golf clubs, lawn chairs, and picnics. Clean, light-sanded beaches with robust intertidal zones line the island. Eventually, he pulled up outside his shop where one of the two poles lay covered in a damp cloth.
Totem poles are often mistakenly associated with all indigenous Americans but they’re specific to the Pacific Northwest. The poles for the Metlakatla Veterans Cemetery are a pair of warriors, a woman and a man, that guard in ancient armor with traditional Tsimshian weapons and carved helmets. One clasps a copper dagger, the other a spear.
“I didn’t want to pick one branch of the services’ style of dress and exclude the others,” Boxley explained.
A collection of two-dozen chisels lay on a work bench as Boxley reviewed the various tools he uses, like adzes. His self-taught and resourceful father once made one with a Volkswagen Bug part he found at the dump.
Boxley popped in a Creedence CD and uncovered the pungent horizontal pole. The basic shapes were mostly carved but not fine-tuned, and Boxley explained the carving process he had already completed.
“You flatten the back, take off the side that has the most knots, the less attractive side,” Boxley said, explaining that this allows access to remove the center-most few inches of heartwood, as cedar tends to rot from the inside out.
While the totem pole is not always carved symmetrically, developing and maintaining a center line “is everything,” Boxley said. He sketched the pole’s formline design on tracing paper before beginning to carve. Formline, a predominant Northwest Coast art feature, is commonly composed of U, S, and ovoid shapes that curl and bend like smoke wisps, and comprise figures, features, and other aspects of the totem pole’s story.
Using his sketch, Boxley measured and marked the log.
“I loosely draw the major parts, the rim of the helmet, where the face guard or visor is going to be,” Boxley said. “Carving sculpture like this is all about layers.”
He said it’s important to understand the depths of the images, what wood will need to be carved more deeply, what parts of the design will be closer to where the bark was. He picked up a skew, a bevel-edged chisel with an angled tip, and started scraping off layers to form the warrior’s nose. Undercutting the wood of the visor, to replicate the space between a forehead and a piece of headwear, was not something Boxley originally planned to do, and wouldn’t be something an average viewer would notice. But for someone with his experience, foregoing the meticulous undercut detailing would be like a pea under his mattress, an irritating, low-grade discomfort.
He continues with rough cuts, forming the basic shapes and structure of the design, before moving to detail carving, of the nostrils, lips, and eyes.
“It comes to life at that point,” Boxley said.
When he’s really focused on finishing work, and is pleased with the progress, he actually salivates. The poles are not sanded, they’re finished with tools, and meticulous attention.
At this point, the pole was unpainted, so the wood grain and lines from the growth rings were all visible. Boxley ended up painting the poles with just the traditional red and black colors. He wanted to stick to an orthodox approach for these guardians, whose final destination conjures stoicism rather than celebration.
When Boxley returned to his house that afternoon, his partner, artist Kandi McGilton, a Tsimshian basket weaver, had a pile of freshly cleaned, chubby, ruby salmonberries she picked earlier that day. She served bowls of the fruit with granulated sugar and sweetened condensed milk. They ate on the lawn of the house Boxley’s great-grandfather built in the 1920s.
“My dad always described totem poles as signposts, that say, ‘This is who lives in this house, this is the history of these people,’” Boxley said.
“For example, your yard,” McGilton said.
McGilton is quick, and frequently served witty one-liners and gently corralled Boxley back on track when he derailed himself in detailed descriptions of local history and cultural practices.
The couple sat in the extended shadows of three totem poles erected in Boxley’s yard, each representing pivotal people and circumstances in his history. While his focus has shifted to becoming fluent in Sm’algyax, he has every intention of evolving as an artist. He has never carved a pole over 25 feet on his own. “If that opportunity comes around, I’ll take it,” he said.
The opportunity for the current project matters to Boxley. “I’m happy that there’s a place of such distinction,” he said, “a national cemetery on our island, where [veterans] can be laid to rest with the honor they deserve. I think that’s beautiful.”