Nearly Two Years' Work By 100 Carvers Yields Totem Pole For Sheldon High

Jul 16, 2019

Tuesday, a large totem pole was installed at Sheldon High School in Eugene.  As KLCC’s Brian Bull reports, the pole is the culmination of a year-and-a-half’s work by nearly a hundred carvers…most of them Native American children.

Story 1: Feature

It began October 15th, 2017.  A couple living in the Lane County town of Deadwood donated a towering Western Red Cedar tree on their property to the 4-J School District’s NATIVES program.  After a prayer ceremony, the tree was cut down. 

A half-ton section was then transported 50 miles east to the NATIVES program at the old Bailey Hill School building in Eugene.

NATIVES co-director Joe Brainard goes to work on the raw Western Red Cedar log.
Credit Vic Hansen / NATIVES

NATIVES co-director Joe Brainard chainsawed away much of the bark. Animals chosen by Sheldon High school students were sketched in. Brainard explained that totem poles are essentially mailboxes that identify a specific tribe or clan.

“So actually it’s a legacy to the students that are there now, forever and a day it’ll be standing right there - that mailbox - telling everybody that, “This is us, this is the people that were here, so the new people coming in, observe.  And respect.”

NATIVES students – after some basic carving and safety training - began chipping away at the 24-and-a-half foot log with chisels in the late fall of 2017.

NATIVES Director Brenda Brainard described the design.

“Ah, I’m so excited, they picked a beaver for the bottom of the totem pole which is my clan," she tells KLCC. 

"There’s a bear on there, because the bears and humans are so closely related, the bear will have a human in his tummy. A killer whale holding a salmon will be on the pole. At the top of the pole they put a raven.

NATIVES students place their mallets upon the log and listen to instructions before chiseling away bark in the earliest phases of the totem pole project.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

"And this one’s exciting because our raven will actually have outstretched arms, as opposed to down arms.  Y’know more like taking flight, to put the sun in the sky.”

A single rose was added later, symbolizing missing and murdered indigenous women, a growing concern across North America. 

Brainard and master carver Vic Hansen were delighted to see many tribes represented in the totem pole project.

Tennepah Brainard applies a thin outline of paint to help accentuate the raven's features in October 2018.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“We’ve got some Klamath kids, we’ve got Nez Perce (nimipu) kids, we had my daughter who’s also Miluk Coos, we have a gal who is Bad River Chippewa," she explains.

"And some are from totem pole tribes and some aren’t.  So it was a great way to teach the kids from non-totem tribes how important the totems were, and how important the clans were.”

“You don’t usually see as many powerful totems on a single log as we’re going to put on this one, but it’s because we have so many tribes that are represented," adds Hansen.

Hansen has carved for more than 20 years, studying totem pole styles and techniques across the Pacific Northwest and Canada.

Many parents joined in the effort, culminating in roughly a hundred participants by the time the totem pole was installed.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Helping him is assistant master carver, Lawrence Headly.  His background is largely as a woodworker. 

“I’ve never carved a totem pole, ever. This is my first one," smiles Headly.  "I love it, I think it’s a very exciting event.  And teaching kids how to do this lost art is an honor.”

One of those kids is Brendan Cooper. He told me what he enjoyed most about carving the totem pole.

“Being able to do the detail work and get it to how I want it.  We stripped the bark off of it, and then started putting faces on it.”

Bull:  Has this project enabled you to appreciate a little bit more about your tribal heritage?" 

“Yes it has, majorly.”

When the NATIVES program broke for the summer of 2018, Boy Scout Troop 61 provided carvers and sanders.

A Boy Scout with Troop 61 volunteers time on a second log that'll eventually be turned into a totem pole for North Eugene High School.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Then from the fall into the early spring of 2019, students painted in the animal shapes with water-resistant paint.  Copper plating was attached to the raven’s crown and wings, as well as the orca’s fin and beaver’s base.

The final leg of the totem’s journey was Sheldon High School.  60 people as well as a couple dozen NATIVES students gathered Tuesday (7/16/19) for the installation. A ceremonial cleansing ceremony and prayer was followed by drumming.

NATIVES Director Brenda Brainard says with the pole now prominently installed, she wants those who come across it to leave with one message.

NATIVES director Brenda Brainard explains the design and importance of the totem pole to a crowd outside Sheldon High School on July 16, 2019.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“That native people were here, and we continue to be here," she says.  "That this pole -while based on history and culture- is also contemporary. As native people, we have made that transition from our ancestors into our progeny.

A group of young indigenous women wait until it's time to bring the separate components to the totem pole.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

"And so I want people to remember this land was always walked upon, utilized, and treated as precious by native people and we continue to do that.”

A second pole is being worked on that’ll eventually go up at North Eugene High School.

Copyright 2019, KLCC.

WEB EXTRA: Watch the nearly two-year odyssey of the totem pole, from Deadwood to Sheldon High:

Story 2: Spot News Report

A carved symbol of Native American heritage is now gracing Sheldon High School in Eugene.  Today,  members of the 4-J School District’s NATIVES program installed a totem pole, after nearly two year’s work. KLCC’s Brian Bull reports.

A heavy crane lifted the half-ton carving into place, as workmen secured it to a concrete foundation and steel beam. A drum group then played as nearly 60 people gathered.

It’s the first-ever totem pole NATIVES has done in its roughly 50-year history. Other projects refurbished existing ones. NATIVES Director Brenda Brainard told the crowd this totem pole is an intertribal accomplishment. 

Numerous supporters and friends of NATIVES were recognized at the totem pole installation. They were given commemorative mallets by the program's director, Brenda Brainard.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“Just as Eugene is a city of great diversity, this school is of great diversity," said Brainard, as crews continued to secure and steady the pole.  "Our NATIVES program has over 100 tribes represented.”

Another pole – from the same tree felled two years ago – is being worked on.  That’ll be installed at North Eugene High School once complete.  NATIVES co-director Joe Brainard says it's currently being painted, and an installation date will be determined soon.

The completed totem outside Sheldon High School, July 16, 2019.
Credit Margaret Bull

The City of Eugene helped NATIVES with the installation expense.  Emily Proudfoot with the Public Works Department says the costs were just a little over $10,000 and were shared evenly between the Parks and Open Space and Cultural Services divisions.  She says The original totem pole at Sheldon Community Center was donated to the City many years ago and had fallen into significant disrepair, to the degree that it had to be replaced. 

"We were excited when the NATIVES Program offered to do this work by providing the labor if we could assist with funding for materials and partnership on removal and replacement of the pole.  

"We are delighted with the results and for the opportunity to connect this project with kids and our local tribes and stories."

Note:  Reporter Brian Bull has several children in the NATIVES program.